Phage-Assisted Continuous Evolution

Researchers have demonstrated that phage-assisted continuous evolution (PACE) can accelerate the development of therapeutic proteins for use in fighting cancer.


(PACE device
The evolution takes place in lagoons
(small red-capped bottles) that have been
seeded with bacteria-infecting viruses.
Bacteria flow in with the help of pumps
(on shelf) and then immediately flow out
into a waste container (clear rectangular tub).)

Most traditional pharmaceutical agents are small molecules, but a number of promising new therapies are based on macromolecules, such as proteins. So-called "directed evolution" gives scientists a way to adapt a naturally occurring macromolecule to perform a specific therapeutically useful function, such as bind to a cancer-linked protein.

"For some applications, the speed of conventional protein evolution is a bottleneck," says David Liu, a professor of chemistry and chemical biology at Harvard University and senior author of a paper describing the new technique in Nature. "Efforts to create proteins with tailor-made properties will be maximally useful if methods to create them can operate on a truly practical timescale..."

The new method also eliminates the cumbersome need for scientists to screen the entire library for successful variants during each round of evolution. PACE links the desired function to the production of a substance that the virus can't thrive without. If a single virus comes up with a version of the target protein that performs the desired function, that virus can complete its life cycle—which means its offspring will go on to infect other E. coli and continue the cycle. Subsequent rounds of evolution progress continually, automatically, and—because M13 has a life cycle of just 10 minutes—extremely quickly.

This idea is reminded me of a technique described by award-winning sf author Theodore Sturgeon in his classic 1941 story Microcosmic God. Sturgeon made use of tiny, short-lived creatures called Neoterics to solve problems for his protagonist, who put them under life-and-death pressure to force them to work for him.

Via Technology Review.

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