E. Coli Genome Reported: Milestone Of Modern Biology Emerges From Wisconsin Lab

by Blattner's team rose to prominence as an experimental organism in 1945 when it was used in the discovery of spontaneous gene transfer or bacterial sex. As a result, the strain, known as K-12, was universally adopted for fundamental work in biochemistry, genetics and physiology. In recent years, it has become the workhorse of biotechnology and is used as a living factory to produce human insulin and other medicines.

The most important result of the work reported today is the sequence itself, said Blattner. In January, the data were made freely available through on-line databases such as GenBank to scientists worldwide. The E. coli genome is a huge one, and required an additional nine months to describe in detail in Science. With more than 4.6 million bases, it is two or three times bigger than other bacteria sequenced to date.

Sequencing of the base pairs that make up DNA is analogous to deciphering a language. It is done with the aid of specialized chemical analysis machines, but can only be accomplished with considerable human effort. More than 269 people - including many undergraduates getting their first taste of science - participated in the project at the UW-Madison.

The individual chemical bases that make up the genome correspond to the letters of the genetic alphabet which, grouped into words and paragraphs corresponding to genes, are read by the living cell as the instructions for assembly and function of all of life's processes.

Knowledge of the genetic code, a major effort of modern biology, permits the scientist to translate the instructions for the purpose of understanding life processes, Blattner said. Knowing the precise order of the chemical base pairs for an entire genome allows the encoded life program to be read in its entirety leading, in principle, to a very complete level of understanding of physiological processes.

The report published in this issue of Science is a global analysis of the data collected by Blattner's team in c

Contact: Terry Devitt
University of Wisconsin-Madison

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