A group of UW-Madison engineers has discovered how to turn on and off specific genes within bacteria, according to a university press release.
“We were frustrated because synthetic biology is littered with examples of artificial factors that can turn on and turn off gene expression under different conditions, but they only work for certain genes,” said Brian Pfleger, a UW-Madison associate professor of chemical and biological engineering.
The engineers addressed this problem by modifying proteins known as transcription activator-like effectors, or TALEs, which are able to turn off a wide range of genes.
“These pathogens piggyback on the molecular biology of higher organisms to manipulate them,” said Ph.D. student Mark Politz, lead author of the research report. “It’s kind of an ingenious little trick they’re playing on their host.”
Because TALEs are able to recognize specific letters in DNA, they were the perfect tool to target particular DNA sequences. The engineers manipulated the TALEs so that the proteins repressed gene expression, as opposed to promoting it.
The team hopes this research can have a broader application beyond the lab.
“We’re generalizing what we could do with organisms that have better inherent properties, like metabolisms that would be useful for biofuels,” Pfleger said.