UCSD bioengineers use computer model to predict evolution of bacteria

In a study published in the November 14 issue of Nature, Bioengineers at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) Jacobs School of Engineering used their computer model of E-coli (patent pending) to accurately predict how the bacteria would evolve under specific conditions. The results may have applications for designing tailor-made biological materials for commercial uses or for predicting the evolution of drug-resistant bacteria.

"This is totally revolutionarythat you can actually predict the outcome of such a complicated and intricate process as adaptive evolution," says Bernhard Palsson, UCSD Bioengineering Professor and study author. "One of the implications of this study is that we could possibly use such a system to predict the evolutionary stability of bacteria, and potentially predict the probability of a drug-resistant strain developing."

The study also serves as an example of the power of systems biology, a hot emerging field dedicated to employing mathematics and computer simulation to understand how genes and proteins work together to control the function of cells. Nature dedicated its November 14 Insights issue to the topic, which included an overview article co-authored by UCSD Bioengineering Professor Jeff Hasty.

Palsson first created a computer model of E-coli in 2000, and since then has shown that the model accurately mimics the behavior of the bacteria 80% of the time. He says he came upon this latest breakthrough almost by happenstance when his laboratory experiment of E-coli growing on glycerol did not match the rate of growth predicted by the computer model. On a hunch, he guessed that this particular strain of E-coli had not been exposed to glycerol before, and that if he gave the bacteria time to evolve, it might reach an optimum growth rate. To test the theory, Palsson created a "survival of the fittest" experiment, in which bacteria that grew well in glycerol was allowed to survive while less fit version

Contact: Denine Hagen
University of California - San Diego

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