Scaled-down genome may power up E. coli's ability in lab, industry

MADISON -- By stripping the E. coli genome of vast tracts of its genetic material - hundreds of apparently inconsequential genes - a team of Wisconsin researchers has created a leaner and meaner version of the bacterium that is a workhorse of modern biology and industry.

The feat, reported this week (April 28, 2006) in the journal Science, demonstrates that scientists can make precise, large-scale genetic alterations to organisms without compromising their basic functions. It represents some of the first hard results in a new field of science known as synthetic biology, where researchers are able to mold the entire genomes of bacteria and viruses in unprecedented ways.

The work promises to make E. coli far more malleable for research and industrial use than it already is. It may permit, for example, the mass production of useful proteins and drugs that were previously unattainable in systems dependent on run-of-the-mill laboratory strains of the microbe.

"We're getting down to the essence of Escherichia coli," says Frederick Blattner, a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor of genetics and the senior author of the new Science report.

According to Blattner, in a progressive series of experiments, slightly more than 15 percent of the E. coli genome was removed with scientists subtracting up to 82,000 base pairs at a time. Despite having such large segments of DNA removed from their genomes, the resulting E. coli cells retained all of their normal biological functions.

Excising such large amounts of DNA without any impact on the health of the organism is, apparently, a reflection of the tendency of bacteria to readily exchange and accumulate large blocks of genetic material over time from other organisms.

The phenomenon, known as horizontal transfer, occurs when bacteria acquire DNA from other sources, such as viruses that might infect the bacterium and confer genetic material not native to the organism.



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