500 Million Year Old Bacterial Gene Resurrected
Using a technique called “paleo-experimental evolution”, Georgia Tech researchers have brought a 500 million year old gene back to life. Betül Kaçar, astrobiologist and leader of the study, was able to achieve this remarkable feat of resurrection by splicing the ancient genetic sequence with modern Escherichia coli (E. Coli) bacteria, an abundant protein found in all known cellular life. The old and the new were hybridised it to create a “chimera”—a new, combined strain of bacteria—which then reproduced and re-evolved. Initially slow to grow, it has now survived over 1,000 brief generations and allows researchers to literally see evolution in action—to observe the different evolutionary trajectories, and whether these are always repeated or whether different choices can be made to achieve a different outcome. The team at Georgia Tech reported that some strains of the hybrid actually became more robust than the original, suggesting that it made smart mutations. Interestingly, the ancient bacteria’s adaptation didn’t bring it closer to the modern E. Coli—instead, it seemed to find a new evolutionary trajectory, giving interesting insight into how life on earth could have evolved differently. We won’t be resurrecting any dinosaurs soon, but this research could help us address long-standing questions in evolutionary and molecular biology.