Journey to explore the inexhaustible resource of genetic information found in microorganisms

September 7, 2018 by Anne M Stark, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory
A colorized scanning electron micrograph of Escherichia coli (E. coli). LLNL researchers and their collaborators have developed a new system to control gene expression in laboratory bacteria, including E. coli. Credit: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, National Institutes of Health

The microbial production of enzymes, chemicals and fuels could become more efficient and economical with a newly engineered system for controlling genes called "Jungle Express."

Scientists and collaborators from the Department of Energy's (DOE) Joint BioEnergy Institute, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL), Lawrence Berkeley National Lab and San Francisco State University have developed a new system to control in laboratory bacteria. The research appears in the Sept. 6 edition of Nature Communications.

Bacteria can serve as living factories to produce a wide array of biochemical products. But many bacterial large-scale fermentations have not been efficient before because of the lack of affordable genetic control elements.

"We have created a system that can precisely control the timing and levels of of the genes involved in these processes, opening the way for efficient large-scale production at low costs," said LLNL biochemist Michael Thelen, senior author of the paper. "These enhancements to bacterial gene regulation have a potential translation to sustainable bioproduction."

Both in fundamental research and at industrial scale, it is often necessary to maintain strict control over the expression of a gene or set of genes that have been placed into bacterial cells for the biosynthesis of target products. Earlier systems to control gene expression have been in use for many years but have been plagued by one or more key elements. These include "leaky" gene expression, in which biochemical targets are produced too early, frequently leading to undesirable side reactions, toxic products and mutation. In addition, the level of expression is often not high enough to be useful in production. Finally, the reagents used to initiate gene expression are expensive.

The lead author of the article is Thomas Ruegg, a graduate student from Basel University who was working with Thelen. "The key component of this expression system is a DNA binding protein that acts as a ," Ruegg said. "We used a computational approach to predict a small DNA sequence for optimal binding of the regulator protein."

Ruegg found that the regulator quickly responds to very low concentrations of crystal violet, a readily available and inexpensive dye that is used in a variety of applications. Crystal violet causes the regulator to release its hold on the gene, resulting in active gene expression and target biochemical production. "In a rational approach, we used the optimized DNA binding site to engineer a robust in which crystal violet acts as the inducer to trigger efficient gene expression," Ruegg said.

"Our findings have the potential to overcome the bottlenecks encountered in earlier systems and opens the way for tightly controlled and efficient gene expression that is not restricted to host organism, substrate or scale," Thelen said.

The name Jungle Express is derived from a rainforest bacterium, the native host of the regulator protein used in this study. Ruegg thinks that "it is a fascinating journey to explore the inexhaustible resource of genetic information found in microorganisms, and to decouple it from its native context for the development of novel useful applications."

Explore further: Embryonic gene regulation through mechanical forces

More information: Thomas L. Ruegg et al. Jungle Express is a versatile repressor system for tight transcriptional control, Nature Communications (2018). DOI: 10.1038/s41467-018-05857-3

Related Stories

Embryonic gene regulation through mechanical forces

May 22, 2018

During embryonic development, genetic cascades control gene activity and cell differentiation. In a new publication of the journal PNAS, the team of Ulrich Technau of the Department of Molecular Evolution and Development ...

Organisms can keep gene expression in check

March 13, 2015

York University researchers have learned how living beings can keep gene expression in check—which might partly explain the uncontrolled gene expression found in many cancers.

How a thieving transcription factor dominates the genome

June 20, 2018

One powerful DNA-binding protein, the transcription factor PU.1, steals away other transcription factors and recruits them for its own purposes, effectively dominating gene regulation in developing immune cells, according ...

Recommended for you

Solar panels for yeast cell biofactories

November 15, 2018

Genetically engineered microbes such as bacteria and yeasts have long been used as living factories to produce drugs and fine chemicals. More recently, researchers have started to combine bacteria with semiconductor technology ...

Orangutan mothers found to engage in displaced reference

November 15, 2018

A pair of researchers with the University of St Andrews has observed orangutan mothers engaging in displaced reference after observation of a perceived threat. In their paper published in the journal Science Advances, Adriano ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

1 / 5 (2) Sep 07, 2018
Genetic Expression !
2.5 Decades Ago, They Grew Legs in Place of Eyes in Fruit Flies on their Faces !
That Treasury has to be Looted, Yes.
All Alcohol consumed is courtesy of benevolent yeast !
1 / 5 (2) Sep 07, 2018
Bacteria Live in Hotsprings. If we can only dip mice in that water, wow !
A century from now probably, with the Genes of those miraculous organisms.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.