Fast-Track Evolution Yields Custom-Made Genomes in a Hurry

By Allison Bond | July 27, 2009 4:57 pm

DNAChanges in an organism’s genome that once took years to make in a lab can now be done in a fraction of the time, thanks to a new method of genome engineering. “This technique allows us to do some amount of rapid evolution” [New Scientist], says lead researcher Harris Wang.

In the experiment, the scientists used a technique called Multiplex Automated Genome Engineering, or MAGE, to program E. coli bacteria to produce five times as much of an antioxidant called lycopene than normal. In addition, using the process, which grafts pieces of synthetic DNA into the genomes of dividing cells, researchers generated 15 billion different genomic patterns in just three days. The process would normally take years, and could eventually be used to produce industrial chemicals, drugs, fuel and anything else that comes out of bacteria [Wired.com]. The process is significantly faster than previous techniques, in which scientists had to modify genes by changing bases one by one, for example, or by cutting genes from one genome and gluing them into another, modifying and inserting them one at a time.

As the researchers describe in a paper in Nature, the MAGE technique allows them to make such changes much more swiftly. It starts with single-stranded pieces of DNA, custom synthesized to fit on target sections of a genome. In a microscopic remix of the famous Dr. Frankenstein movie scene, a target cell is then jolted with energy, opening holes in its membrane [Wired.com]. The DNA flows into the cell, and when it replicates, it creates cells that contain the engineered DNA.

Engineering microbes to produce a certain compound is not new, but until now, it’s proved prohibitively labor-intensive. The American chemicals firm DuPont, for instance, spent nearly seven years and hundreds of millions of dollars to identify 20 genetic changes that optimise microbes to produce a chemical used as a commercial solvent called 1,3-propanediol [New Scientist]. Using MAGE, however, could cost scientists only a few thousand dollars to mutate a gene thousands of times within a few days. That would make it much easier for researchers to create their own custom strain of bacteria.

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Image: flickr / ftoomschb

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, Technology
  • david

    Hmmm. Lets see- evolution requires an intelligent being to engineer changes. Isnt evolution supposed to be a mindless process that has no intended direction? Looks like evolution has taken another blow to the head. Why dont we admit that evolution is a philosophy. not science. the informaiton we deal with in the DNA had to come from an intelligent source since that is the only way information is made.

  • Tom

    @David. Where in the text does it say that evolution requires an intelligent being to engineer changes? You are reading into the text what you want to believe.

  • Irv

    To DAVID: Moron, Evolution happens over long periods of time. It just so happens, that we Human are trying to manipulate DNA to create livng things that produce chemicals and proteins for the use of science. It has nothig to do with “philosophy”. There is plenty of proof that evolution has been happening due to the need of living things to adapt to their surroundings.

  • http://clubneko.net robot makes music

    To David: It’s just increased-speed evolution – we’re not really doing anything that doesn’t happen naturally… we just invented a fast-forward button. It’s a tool, like the wheel.

    Or do you mean to imply that WE are the “intelligent designers?”

  • John Heininger

    Adaptation, rapid or otherwise, is within the pre-existing capabilities of all living creatures, and has nothing to do with evolution, though evolutionists falsely argue that this is evidence of evolution in action being observed. This is simplistic and nieve.

    The wide genetic variation within a particular group, humans or otherwise, means that certain individuals may have a resistence to various threats, ensuring the survival and continuation of the particular lifeform, no more, no less. And the reality is that variations within any particular lifeform act to preserve the particular lifeform, and not produce something entirely different. In short, virus in, virus out; bacteria in, bacteria out, fruit fly in, fruit fly out. End of story!

  • Irv

    So you are saying that genetic variantion and adaptation only assures the survival of species from certain threats and is in no way related to evolution? The genetic variantion between a human and that of a chimpanzee is very little, 1 percent and it makes a world of difference between the two species. So CLEARLY genetic variation, aside from assuring our survival from certain threats by allowing species to adapt, has everything to do with evolution. Otherwise, Chimpanzees and humans would be one species and we wouldn’t be reading this article right now.

  • Jumblepudding

    I think they could call it Multiplex Automatic Genome-Inventive Computation, or MAGIC. I’m sure they tried to find a way to make that acronym work. If humans are playing god with this, we’re basically the deist god that sets up the mechanism and lets it run on its own.

  • zachary

    “End of Story!” Whew, thanks John, for a minute there I almost believed the mountain of evidence that supported the cogent theory, but your blistering and baseless assault has opened my eyes! Calling change simplistic but stasis complex seems like an odd view as well. Although you are right about one thing, the continuity of life. There are no fixed types, it flows from one generation to the next, the markers between descendant species, even when well reasoned, are still largely arbitrary. Plus, the glaring problem of assuming all life has been present at all tiems in Earth’s history, or do you ascribe as to some as yet unknown supernatural belief that holds that trillions of different species would be created throughout geological time and in an order that would appear gradual and understandable through natural forces?

  • Oran

    I’m not sure if arguments in favor of creationism are even relevant here.

    Just because most creationists are unintelligent and misinformed does not mean that they are all that way, and not all unintelligent and misinformed people are creationists. Proof of the existence of some category of phenomena does not qualify as evidence against the existence of all other partially overlapping categories of phenomena.

    For example, the selection and mutations here are driven or strongly influenced by humans. That doesn’t offer evidence for or against natural mutations or natural selection mechanisms. The only thing we _know_ is that nature is not doing exactly what these engineers want it do and that it is somewhat difficult to control. That these engineers are leveraging an understanding of modern biology to perform real world feats of “magic” can be taken to _validate_ that understanding, but it does not _prove_ it to be true.

  • Amos

    Oran, I don’t think the “most creationists are unintelligent and misinformed” statement was necessary or helpful, though… I think you meant it as a sort of backhanded defense of Creationists?

    You’re right that this doesn’t prove or disprove anything in the Creation v. Evolution debate. Still. I do see where David was going. If I were him, though, I would have said:

    “Here these scientists are calling what they are doing ‘speeding up evolution’ but in reality, they are engineers – ‘intelligent designers’ – doing the work to make the ‘evolution’ happen. Isn’t that kind of ironic?”

    I think that’s kind of a hilarious thing to point out.

    Of course, “evolution” here just means “change with time” and has nothing to do with the Origins debate. Let’s all remember to define our terms, folks. :D

  • John Heininger

    Argue and protest as you will, when all the evolutionary presuppositions, inferences, explanations, conjecture, and speculations are summed up, we still have the same ultimate reality. No one has ever seen one creature evolve in macro fashion into a different creature. Every variation and adaptation ever observed is at a micro level, and works to ensure the preservation of that particular creature. To repeat: virus in, virus out; bacteria in, bacteria out, fruit fly in, fruit fly out; lizard in, lizard out.

    Presuppositional based evolutionary interpretations are ultimately inference based. Any change observed in the natural world or the laboratory is not macro evolution related. The rapid variation and adaptation observed within creatures, lizards or anything else, is within the existing capabilities of all creatures, humans included. People develop a “new” resistance to viruses and bacteria that they never had before, thanks to the bodies existing immune system and adaptation capabilities. The wide genetic variation within humans makes some immune to certain diseases, while others are not. Those that survive deadly plagues or epidemics carry that immunity on. People who move into warmer climates change and adapt in a “new” way, to suit the “new” environment. Some dogs are bred to develop “new” spots, and others develop “new” thick fur. This capability is already inherently present in the gene pool, and has nothing to do with evolution from the simple to the complex. It has everything to do with the creatures inherent capability to rapidly adapt. If they don’t, they die. Variations observed happen rapidly, far to rapidly to be a gradual random mutational based process.

    Allcreatures have the existing capability to change and adapt within broad limits. However, every breeder has discovered from the start that such variations have definite boundaries, even hybrids. Adaptations act to preserve the particular creature. And any subspecies of that creature result in a loss of genetic information to the point that they cannot reproduce. Precisely the opposite to evolutionary informational gain hypothesis.

    The bottom line is that observed variations and adaptations within lizards, or within any creature, does absolutely nothing to prove either macro evolution or the evolutionary continuum form the simple to the complex. No fossil has a sign saying what it evolved from or to. It’s all inferences. The one percent DNA variation between humans and chimps is enough to put man on the moon, with further insights now indicating much greater differences at a deeper genetic level, as we understand more.

    And for heavens sake, cut out all this condescending language nonsense regarding those who don’t hold to your particular interpretation of reality. It represents a midget mob mindset that belongs to the school yard. Grow up, if you want readers to seriously consider what you are on about.

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