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‘Promiscuous’ enzymes can compensate for disabled genes

Bacteria devise metabolic work-around when important biochemical reactions are thwarted

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12:03pm, August 12, 2016
E. coli

PINCH HITTERS  When E. coli (shown here) loses genes that make important enzymes, other enzymes will find a new way to do the same job. 

WASHINGTON — When bacteria lose genes needed to make enzymes for important chemical reactions, defeat isn’t inevitable. Sometimes other enzymes will take on new roles to patch together a work-around chain of reactions that does the job, biologist Shelley Copley reported August 4 at the 2nd American Society for Microbiology Conference on Experimental Microbial Evolution.

Bacteria that can adapt in this way are more likely to survive when living conditions change, passing along these new tricks to their descendants. So studying these biochemical gymnastics is helping scientists to understand how evolution works on a molecular level.

Working with different strains of Escherichia coli bacteria, Copley and colleagues deleted genes responsible for making crucial enzymes. The team then watched the microbes replicate for many generations to see how they worked around those limitations.

Most enzymes are highly specialized: They only

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