Bacteria mate using a timely protruding phallus.
Mammalian cells rarely take bacteria up on their offer of DNA.
Bacteria caught mating with mammalian cells.
Cross-species coupling is generally frowned upon. But in the liberal labs of California it is actively being encouraged. Bugs that are persuaded to get down and dirty with hamster cells are rewriting sex manuals in the act.
Like humans, bacteria mate using a timely protruding phallus. It suckers a nearby bacterium and drags it close enough to shoot in DNA - a process called conjugation.
Waters hopes to exploit bacteria’s wanton ways for gene therapy - the transfer of healthy genes into human cells to compensate for defective ones causing disease. In the lungs, for example, resident bacteria could be modified to carry and transfer genes such as the one that is faulty in the lung disease cystic fibrosis.
"It could be a powerful way to deliver DNA," agrees Ghigo. Large populations of bacteria constantly attempting sex might have more success than a single dose of another gene-delivery drug.
Gene-therapy researcher Stephen Hyde at the University of Oxford, UK, is more doubtful. Thick protective mucous might stop the bacteria getting close to lung cells, he points out. Introducing bacteria into the body and transferring unwanted bacterial genes might also be risks.
In the lab, conjugation could be a way to transfer large pieces of DNA into mammalian cells. Such transfers are currently difficult, says Hyde, as the DNA tends to break easily.
Conjugation was first reported in 1946, winning its voyeur, Joshua Lederberg, a Nobel prize. The plasmid that carries the genes responsible was named the fertility factor.
The transfer of circular DNA always starts at a defined point. By interrupting mating bugs at regular intervals, geneticists were able to work out which genes had been passed over. Hence the first map of the E.coli chromosome was measured in minutes rather than megabases.
HELEN PEARSON | Nature News Service
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