Dumping Useless Genes

Helmholtz researchers develop programmable mini-bacteria

Bacteria are genetically equipped with tremendous variability. As a result, these microorganisms are extremely flexible in their responses to the surrounding environment. From the standpoint of biotechnology, many bacterial genes are useful, while others are not. Researchers at the Helmholtz Centre for Infection Research in Braunschweig have now launched a project to reduce the bacterial genome of Pseudomonas putida to its essentials and, at the same time, insert additional genetic circuits.

Equipped with this new genetic makeup, P. putida would turn aromatic chlorine compounds – annular structures with one or more chlorine atoms – into more valuable pharmaceutical compounds.

The project, called "Probactys" for "Programmable Bacterial Catalysts", will operate over three years and is supported by a European Union grant of 1.9 million euros.

The genetic programming undertaken by the Helmholtz researchers is aimed at forcing the bacteria to work together in a coordinated and synchronized fashion. At the same time, undesirable metabolic by-products would be blocked and biocatalysis would proceed at low temperatures. "Ideally, the bacteria with the mini-genome would also be receptive to a targeted, accelerated evolution," says Dr. Vitor Martins dos Santos, a systems biologist at the Helmholtz Centre and the project's coordinator. "That would make it possible to continuously improve the metabolic circuitry." "In turn, these cells could then take over very effective and special functions for biotechnological, ecological or medical tasks," he says.

The Braunschweig scientists are working with colleagues from Spain, France, Britain, the Netherlands and China. The "Probactys" project is more than just typical laboratory research, or what scientists refer to as wet lab work. The researchers also have to develop cellular models on the computer, the so-called dry lab. This is an enormous task that requires international partners to ensure that the goals of the project are met.

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