In the genetic code, most codons specify an amino acid, a protein building block. But a few codons tell the cell when to stop adding amino acids to a protein chain, and it was one of these "stop" codons that the Harvard researchers targeted. With just 314 occurrences, the TAG stop codon is the rarest word in the E. coli genome, making it a prime target for replacement. Using a platform called multiplex automated genome engineering, or MAGE, the team replaced instances of the TAG codon with another stop codon, TAA, in living E. coli cells. (Unveiled by the team in 2009, the MAGE process has been called an evolution machine for its ability to accelerate targeted genetic change in living cells.)
While MAGE, a small-scale engineering process, yielded cells in which TAA codons replaced some but not all TAG codons, the team constructed 32 strains that, taken together, included every possible TAA replacement. Then, using bacteria's innate ability to trade genes through a process called conjugation, the researchers induced the cells to transfer genes containing TAA codons at increasingly larger scales. The new method, called conjugative assembly genome engineering, or CAGE, resembles a playoff bracketa hierarchy that winnows 16 pairs to eight to four to two to onewith each round's winner possessing more TAA codons and fewer TAG, explains Isaacs, who invokes "March Madness."
"We're testing decades-old theories on the conservation of the genetic code," Isaacs said. "And we're showing on a genome-wide scale that we're able to make these changes."<
|Contact: David Cameron|
Harvard Medical School