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Scientists develop new genetic engineering technique

Newly developed genetic engineering technique may speed the study of gene mutations.

By Amy Wallace
Sergej Djuranovic (right) and graduate student Laura Arthur look at plates of bacteria producing precisely calibrated levels of a protein. The two are part of a team that has developed a new technique -- effective in species as diverse as bacteria, plants and humans -- to regulate how much protein is produced from a particular gene. Photo by Robert Boston
Sergej Djuranovic (right) and graduate student Laura Arthur look at plates of bacteria producing precisely calibrated levels of a protein. The two are part of a team that has developed a new technique -- effective in species as diverse as bacteria, plants and humans -- to regulate how much protein is produced from a particular gene. Photo by Robert Boston

Jan. 20 (UPI) -- Researchers at Washington University School of Medicine have created a new genetic engineering method to help biologists study genes.

The new technique will allow scientists to control how much protein is made in a particular gene and can be applied to bacteria, plants and human cells.

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"Basically, this is a universal toolkit for modifying gene expression," Sergej Djuranovic, Ph.D., assistant professor of cell biology and physiology at Washington University School of Medicine and senior author of the study, said in a press release. "It's a tool that can be used whether you are genetically engineering cells to produce a particular organic molecule, or to study how a gene works."

The method developed takes advantage of a part of the cellular proces of mRNA translation, which is key to producing proteins in DNA. When making a protein, a gene must first be copied to a related molecule known as messenger RNA to be translated into proteins.

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Djuranovic and his team were able to show that the slipperiness of strings of A's could regulate the amount of protein from a gene. By adding more A's to the beginning or middle of a piece of messenger RNA, the less protein was produced.

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The team discovered that by controlling the length of the string of A's or creating different molecular links along the string, they could create the exact amount of protein they needed.

"The great thing about this is how simple it is," Djuranovic said. "In the past, if you wanted a mutation that knocked down gene expression by, say, 30 percent, it took years of work and a lot of luck to find one like that. Now we can do it in a few days."

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The study was published in Nature Communications.

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