Berkeley Lab researchers develop genetic engineering technology

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Scientists at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory published a paper in Nature Microbiology on genetic engineering tools that would make it easier to study and understand microbes.

The study focused on chassis-independent recombinase-assisted genome engineering, or CRAGE, which is a genetic engineering tool that allows scientists to examine and modify microbes for multiple purposes. According to staff scientist and principal investigator of the study, Yasuo Yoshikuni, CRAGE has the potential to produce molecules that were once difficult to make in labs.

“You may conceive the idea of a car, but you won’t understand how it works without making it,” Yoshikuni said. “The same goes for biology, and microbes in particular. With CRAGE, we can use a universal methodology to look at microbes, understand their individual parts and use them effectively.”

The project, which began January 2015, was led by the Department of Energy Joint Genome Institute in collaboration with Goethe University Frankfurt and the Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory. The paper took nearly a year to finalize, according to Yoshikuni, before they could publish it in major journals.

One critical feature of CRAGE is that it can be applied to more molecules than previous technologies that were more limited, according to a press release from Berkeley Lab. Yoshikuni added that this would allow scientists around the world to use a universal engineering method that would incorporate far more organisms than before.

“No other technologies are principally universally applicable,” Yoshikuni said. “Current tools have a certain range of hosts and the technology tended to be limited to those microorganisms. CRAGE is advantageous because you can, in theory, apply the technology to a large group of microbes.”

By giving scientists the opportunity to engineer a wide range of microbes, CRAGE would allow any microbe to produce target proteins, RNA or other molecules for research proteins, according to the press release. For example, a microbe that would normally produce large numbers of a compound could be engineered with CRAGE to make large amounts of a different molecule used to make medicine.

Each microbe has certain properties they specialize in, according to Yoshikuni, and CRAGE would help researchers take advantage of those properties. Some microorganisms found in nature — particularly those that process nutrients in soil — could be engineered to support plant growth in a sustainable manner, Yoshikuni explained.

There are many applications for CRAGE, Yoshikuni added, ranging from making tastier cheese to mass-producing compounds that would eliminate the need for fertilizers. One particular use, Yoshikuni said, could focus on engineering microorganisms to deliver anti-cancer compounds directly to the affected organs.

“One major use of CRAGE is that we can engineer microorganisms that colonize in colon cancer, for example,” Yoshikuni said. “You can put these microbes in CRAGE and then put them back into the gut to deliver an anticancer drug to the colon directly.”

Contact Aditya Katewa at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @adkatewa1.