Oct. 31 (UPI) -- Scientists have found a way to trigger the evolutionary process in bacteria that yields a variety of natural compounds -- but at accelerated pace.
The bioengineering feat, dubbed Accelerated Evolution, could allow researchers to generate "libraries" of useful compounds, some of which could be adapted into new drug therapies.
"For 20 years we have been using rational bioengineering to modify the chemical structures of clinically important natural products -- using genetics to make a new molecule in a process that parallels medicinal chemistry -- and that's what we were doing when we stumbled upon this," Barrie Wilkinson, a professor at the John Innes Centre, said in a news release. "We have discovered a completely new way of doing things, one that will also teach us how to better bioengineer systems in a rational manner."
Scientists were perfecting techniques for producing new versions of rapamycin, a compound used to treat some cancers and prevent the rejection of organs during transplants.
Rapamycin is a type of polyketide, a group of metabolites produced by bacteria and fungi to fend off pathogens and mine resources.
In an attempt to produce a new type of bacteria and new type of rapamycin, scientists installed a temperature sensitive replicon -- a self-replicating DNA or RNA molecules -- in the genome of a strain of soil bacteria called Streptomyces rapamycinicus.
Instead of a single augmented strain of bacteria and a new version of rapamycin, their genetic manipulation yielded a variety of new bacterial strains, each producing new compounds. The scientists realized further genetic tweaking could yield an even greater variety of natural products.
Scientists believe their insertion of a replicon triggered homologous replication, a DNA repair mechanism. The repair process spit out the replicon and rearranged the genes. In other words, scientists found a way to trigger accelerated evolution.
"We think this process mimics and accelerates the processes that are prevalent during natural polyketide evolution," Wilkinson said.
Researchers believe their findings -- detailed this week in the journal Nature Communications -- could prove a game-changer in the field of drug discovery and synthetic biology.