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Evolution caught in the act

ANN ARBOR, Mich.---An experiment which forced E. coli bacteria to adapt or perish showed that, in a pinch, they were capable of improvising a novel molecular tool to save their skins.

"The bacteria reached for a tool that they had, and made it do something it doesn't normally do," said James Bardwell, an associate professor of molecular, cellular and developmental biology at the University of Michigan. "We caught evolution in the act of making a big step."

This big step also turns out to be a new way of making molecular bolts called disulfide bonds, which are of particular interest to the biotechnology industry. Disulfide bonds are stiffening struts in proteins that also help the proteins fold into their proper, functional, three-dimensional shapes.

In a paper published Feb. 20 in the journal Science, a joint research team at the University of Michigan and the University of Texas describes how a resourceful bacterium was able to develop an entirely new way to make disulfide bonds. This restarted its motor and enabled it to move toward food before it starved to death.

The laboratory of George Georgiou, a professor of chemical and biomedical engineering at UT Austin, used a strain of mutant bacteria developed by Bardwell that had lost their ability to make disulfide bonds. These disulfides are critical for the ability of the bacteria's propeller-like swimming motor, the flagellum, to work. The researchers then put these non-swimming bugs to the test by placing them on a dish of food where, once they had exhausted the food they could reach, they either had to repair that broken motor or starve to death on the spot.

The bacteria used in the experiment were forced to use a protein called thioredoxin---which normally destroys disulfide bonds---to make the bonds instead. In a process similar to natural selection, UT graduate student Lluis Masip made random alterations in the DNA encoding thioredoxin and then subjected thous
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Contact: Karl Leif Bates
batesk@umich.edu
734-647-1842
University of Michigan
19-Feb-2004


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