'Evolution Chip' Automates Evolved Change

An automated device has been developed that evolves a biological molecule in just a few days. Brian Paegel and Gerald Joyce, of the Scripps Research Institute of La Jolla, CA, created the experiment to evolve molecules - or even cells - to sense environmental pollutants.

They took a form of ligase that is not naturally good at recognizing RNA molecules and put it into a tiny drop of RNA. Once the ligase had duplicated itself for a while, the researchers dropped the concentration of RNA in the drop. Only the most efficient copies of the ligase would survive.

RNA is usually used to create proteins from genes. But some kinds of RNA can perform tasks similar to protein enzymes. n the process, the ligase sews another strand of RNA to itself and is then duplicated by a pair of proteins.

Because of occasional errors in copying, the new ligase molecule might work differently from its predecessor sometimes better, and sometimes worse. Paegel's team wanted to see if they could evolve a better ligase by natural selection.

The 'evolution chip' has hundreds of miniature chambers; once the ligase molecules became more efficient, a few of them were sucked up and placed in a new chamber. After seventy hours and billions of duplications, the new and improved ligase molecules were 90 times more efficient than the original starter sample.

This is not an exact match, but it reminds me of the Neoterics from Theodore Sturgeon's 1941 story Microcosmic God. A scientist created a new race of tiny beings, put them in an escape-proof chamber, and then challenged them to create solutions to problems.

They were completely in Kidder's power. Earth's normal atmosphere would poison them, as he took care to demonstrate to every fourth generation... They would make ... their little trial and error experiments hundreds of times faster than man...
(Read more about the Neoterics)

In the novel, James Kidder - the scientist who created the Neoterics - took credit for everything his tiny prisoners made for him. When researchers cause biological molecules to evolve into something more specifically useful, who gets the credit?

Via 'Darwin chip' brings evolution into the classroom.

Scroll down for more stories in the same category. (Story submitted 4/17/2008)

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