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Researchers demonstrate how ‘interfering’ RNA can block bacterial evolution

Bacteria may be simple creatures, but unlike “higher” organisms they have a neat evolutionary trick. When the going gets tough, they can simply pick up and incorporate a loose bit of genetic material from their environment. It’s instant evolution, no time-consuming mutations required. This process, known as horizontal gene transfer, is an important reason why nasty bacteria like pneumococci are often able to evade immune system attacks and antibiotic drugs.

A Rockefeller microbiologist has now uncovered a mechanism by which bacteria can be forced to accept or reject the foreign DNA that they incorporate into their genomes through a process known as transformation. The researchers say that harnessing this mechanism could be a new way to restrict or manipulate bacterial evolution in ways that might be medically useful.

“Transformation is something that bacteria use as a last resort,” says Luciano Marraffini, head of Rockefeller’s Laboratory of Bacteriology. “In a desperate attempt to stay alive under hostile conditions, they start incorporating whatever genes they can find into their chromosome in the hopes that they can quickly evolve out of trouble.”
 
 

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