"Companies have proprietary mutant [bacterial] strains that have been worked on for more than 20 years, but many of the mutations still are unknown," Kao said. "There's no knowledge you can gain from these overproducers to turn around and make others."
That's where Kao comes in. On Sunday, she will present her latest progress at the 229th annual meeting of the American Chemical Society in San Diego, focusing on research that earned her the 2004 Jay Bailey Young Investigator Award, which recognizes the best paper in the journal Metabolic Engineering.
Funded by the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health, Kao's research uses a "reverse engineering" strategy to learn from and exploit drug-company mutants--in this case the bacterial species that produces erythromycin, an antibiotic given to treat bronchitis, diphtheria, whooping cough, pneumonia and other conditions. Reverse engineering involves taking something apart to see how it works. For Kao, it means asking how one strain of Saccharopolyspora erythraea produces ten times the erythromycin of normal strains.
The answer, it seems, lies not in the cluster of genes known to produce the antibiotic, but in a mutation of another gene that co-regulates the timing of expression for the antibiotic-producing genes. The result? The mutant produces erythrom