ATHENS, Ga. -- A husband and wife team of University of Georgia scientists have harnessed a bacteria’s immune system to turn off genes that allow the bacteria to resist viruses and other disease agents.
Their discovery won’t lead to a cure for cancer or Alzheimer’s any time soon, but researchers Michael and Becky Terns believe it will be a powerful new research tool for scientists working in everything from cancer research to food or drug manufacturing.
“Once you can manipulate genes, you can impact a lot of areas,” said Michael Terns, a professor in UGA’s departments of genetics and of biochemistry and molecular biology.
The Terns published their latest research Thursday in the journal Molecular Cell.
The couple, who have been at UGA for 17 years, were the first to discover this system a couple of years ago.
“We didn’t know (bacteria) had such a sophisticated immune system,” Michael Terns said.
The system, called the CRISPR-CAS defense system, targets RNA molecules.
Now, they have figured out a way to control the bacteria’s immune system to target not just the viruses or other foreign invaders that might attack bacteria, but parts of the bacteria’s own genetic machinery.
Specifically, the Terns were able to block the action of genes that give the bacteria resistance to amoxicilin and similar antibiotic drugs.
For years, scientists have been using other techniques to shut down genes that control basic cell processes as they study everything from how bacteria break down plant materials to how cells produce insulin or how cancer cells proliferate.
But the UGA researchers may have found a better way to block gene expression, using a system based on RNA rather than DNA.
“This is fast, efficient, less costly and more flexible,” Michael Terns said.
In their next line of research, the Terns will try to insert the modified bacteria into other organisms and cells, including other types of bacteria and even human cells — in tissue cultures, though, not in actual human bodies.
National Institutes of Health administrator Michael Bender said the Terns’ discovery has big potential.
“This detailed biochemical study ... has shed light on a powerful weapon in the bacterial arsenal against invading viruses and mobile elements,” said Bender, who oversees RNA processing and function grants at the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute of General Medical Sciences. “In addition, by defining the key components of the system, Drs. Terns and their colleagues have set the stage for the development of a new tool for targeting specific RNA molecules in diverse cell types, potentially providing biomedical researchers with a valuable new way to analyze gene functions.”
Additional UGA authors on the paper include postdoctoral researcher Caryn Hale, graduate students Sonali Majumdar and Joshua Elmore, former undergraduate student Neil Pfister and poultry science professor Mark Compton, along with Brenton Gravely, Sara Olson and Alissa Resch of the University of Connecticut.
The research was funded by the National Institutes of Health, including federal economic stimulus money.