Western team contributes to discovery of novel genetic engineering technique

January 20 2017 - A new technique will help biologists effectively modify genes, whether the goal is to turn cells into tiny factories churning out medicines, alter crops to grow with limited water, generate bio-reactors that are more efficient or study the effects of a gene on human health. 

The technique, published today in Nature Communications, allows scientists to regulate with precision the amount of protein produced from a particular gene. This elegant process is simple, innovative and in everything from bacteria to plants to human cells.
“Basically, this is a universal toolkit for modifying gene expression,” said Sergej Djuranovic, PhD, an assistant professor of cell biology and physiology at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, and the study’s senior author.  “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 Western-associated group of Vava Grbic (Western Biology), Preetam Janakirama (Western Biology/AAFC), Rima Menassa (Western Biology/AAFC) and Igor Kolotilin (Scattered Gold Biotechnology Inc.) were part of the collaborative team of researchers that tested the technique in bacteria, protozoa, yeast, plants, fruit flies, mouse and human cells. It worked in all these organisms because RNA translation is an evolutionarily ancient process that occurs the same way across all life forms. The team showed that the slipperiness of strings of A’s could be used to regulate the amount of protein produced from a gene. The more A’s they added to the beginning or middle of a piece of messenger RNA, the less protein was produced from it. By carefully controlling the length of the string of A’s, or introducing different molecular links in certain position along the string, they could produce exactly as much protein as they desired.

This discovery builds on the work at Western and AAFC in agricultural genomics and biotechnology. Grbic’s group sequenced and analysed the genome of the first chelicerate, the two-spotted spider mite – an important agricultural pest. The Menassa group is involved in the production of recombinant proteins in plants such as vaccines and antibodies for the treatment of animal diseases, and Scattered Gold Biotechnology Inc. is developing a plant expression system for high value pharmaceutical proteins. This string of innovations places Western and AAFC at the forefront of agricultural genomics and biotechnology. 

The paper is available at: http://www.nature.com/articles/ncomms14112 

Contact: Marilyn Steinberg, Science Communications