Friday, May 24, 2019

Franken-Coli: Making Bacteria from Scratch

Article Written By: Mehak Bhansali

What is the significance of redundancy in the genome of living things? This is a question that baffles all scientists and is a subject of major research. However, one researcher and his team took finding out the answer to this question to a whole new level.

Jason Chin and his team of researchers at Britain’s Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology have achieved a considerable biological feat – synthesizing an E. coli genome containing only artificially designed fragments. Even more astounding is the fact that this artificial E. coli survives and grows - albeit slower than normal - with their cells being longer and sporting a rod shape.  

The nucleic bases (A, G, T, and C) in DNA are read three at a time (known as codons), then translated into a string of amino acids to make a protein.  Although there are 64 different codons, there are only 20 different amino acids. This phenomenon is referred to as redundancy. To discover the importance of redundancy in the genome, Dr. Chin and his team made the E. coli utilize 61 codons instead of 64.

Once synthesizing the DNA, the next biggest obstacle lies in incorporating the new genome and removing the natural one. However, researchers solved this challenge by substituting parts of the original E. coli genome one by one for artificial segments. In the end, the only thing that remained was the human-synthesized DNA.

Constructing E. coli with redesigned DNA paves the road for new possibilities. For example, pharmaceuticals such as insulin are mass-produced by genetically modified bacteria. Viruses can infect these bacteria; however, artificially designed DNA in microbes may confer immunity to these outbreaks. Furthermore, synthetic DNA can be designed such that it prevents genes from being functional if crossed into another species. Additionally, redesigning DNA can provide researchers with the opportunity to produce different proteins with novel functions.  

However, these exciting developments do come with a price; the process of recoding DNA is costly. “It’s just way too expensive for academic groups to keep pursuing,” warns Dr. James Kuo, a Harvard Medical School postdoctoral researcher. Nonetheless, there lies the possibility that if recoded DNA increases in demands, the prices may subsequently decrease.

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 Image Credit: E. coli colony.  Credits: James Joel via Flickr CC By ND 2.0

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