Scientists Re-Code Genome of E. Coli Bacterium

Scientists from Harvard and Yale came together to achieve what was once thought impossible: to fundamentally transform the identity and properties of an organism by re-coding its genome.

According to the study published this month in the journal Science, the scientists successfully developed a new genome for E. coli bacterium. By changing its genetic code, the scientists were able to incorporate non-standard amino acids, the building blocks of proteins, which allows for new and useful biological functions.

“This is the first time that a cellular genome has been designed and built in order to change the functioning of that cell,” said George M. Church, a Harvard Medical School professor who co-authored the study. “We did this in a cell that is considered very industrially useful.”

Marc J. Lajoie, a graduate student at HMS, added that the goal was to “create a new language that no natural organism or virus speaks.”

“We also want this new language to be better than the natural genetic code by adding new amino acids possessing useful properties,” he said.

To facilitate the creation of these organisms, Lajoie said that the group developed two new technologies that were capable of increasing the frequency of change in living cells and inducing the trading of genes.

After nearly a decade of method development, the project finally came to fruition. In creating such recoded organisms, researchers now have access to potent protein factories that may be useful in a myriad of settings.

“There has been a big push in synthetic biology to create organisms that can churn out biofuels and materials for industrial applications,” said Alexis Rovner, a graduate student at Yale University. “We need to expand the synthetic biologist’s toolbox.”

Church also mentioned such real-world implications can help to stabilize therapeutic proteins in human blood and develop mice strains resistant to viruses to make studies more productive.

Besides these applications, the researchers said that the ability to change the genetic code provides them with the opportunity to explore why most organisms share a common genetic code and how this code has evolved and can continue to evolve.

“From plants to humans, the language of the genetic code is universal,” Rovner said. “For the first time, we’ve changed that language”.

—Staff writer Fatima N. Mirza can be reached at fatima.mirza@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @fatimanmirza.

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