In a paper that appeared in the June 17, 2009 issue of Nature, Prof. Yitzhak Pilpel, doctoral student Amir Mitchell, and research associate Dr. Orna Dahan of the Institute’s Molecular Genetics Department, together with Prof. Martin Kupiec and Gal Romano of Tel Aviv University, examined microorganisms living in environments that change in predictable ways. Their findings show that these microorganisms’ genetic networks are hard-wired to “foresee” what comes next in the sequence of events and begin responding to the new state of affairs before its onset.
E. coli bacteria, for instance, which normally cruise harmlessly down the digestive tract, encounter a number of different environments on their way. In particular, they find that one type of sugar – lactose – is invariably followed by a second sugar – maltose – soon afterward. Pilpel and his team in the Molecular Genetics Department checked the bacteria’s genetic response to lactose and found that, in addition to the genes that enable it to digest lactose, the gene network for utilizing maltose was partially activated. When they switched the order of the sugars, giving the bacteria maltose first, there was no corresponding activation of lactose genes, implying that bacteria have naturally “learned” to get ready for a serving of maltose after a lactose appetizer.
Another microorganism that experiences consistent changes is wine yeast. As fermentation progresses, sugar and acidity levels change, alcohol levels rise, and the yeast’s environment heats up. Although the system was somewhat more complicated than that of E. coli, the scientists found that when the wine yeast feel the heat, they begin activating genes for dealing with the stresses of the next stage. Further analysis showed that this anticipation and early response is an evolutionary adaptation that increases the organism’s chances of survival.
Ivan Pavlov first demonstrated this type of adaptive anticipation, known as a conditioned response, in dogs in the 1890s. He trained the dogs to salivate in response to a stimulus by repeatedly ringing a bell before giving them food. In the microorganisms, says Pilpel, “evolution over many generations replaces conditioned learning, but the end result is similar.” “In both evolution and learning,” says Mitchell, “the organism adapts its responses to environmental cues, improving its ability to survive.” Romano: “This is not a generalized stress response, but one that is precisely geared to an anticipated event.” To see whether the microorganisms were truly exhibiting a conditioned response, Pilpel and Mitchell devised a further test for the E. coli based on another of Pavlov’s experiments. When Pavlov stopped giving the dogs food after ringing the bell, the conditioned response faded until they eventually ceased salivating at its sound. The scientists did something similar, using bacteria grown by Dr. Erez Dekel, in the lab of Prof. Uri Alon of the Weizmann Institute’s Molecular Cell Biology Department, in an environment containing the first sugar, lactose, but not following it up with maltose. After several months, the bacteria had evolved to stop activating their maltose genes at the taste of lactose, only turning them on when maltose was actually available.
“This showed us that there is a cost to advanced preparation, but that the benefits to the organism outweigh the costs in the right circumstances,” says Pilpel. What are those circumstances? Based on the experimental evidence, the research team created a sort of cost/benefit model to predict the types of situations in which an organism could increase its chances of survival by evolving to anticipate future events. The researchers are already planning a number of new tests for their model, as well as different avenues of experimentation based on the insights they have gained.
Pilpel and his team believe that genetic conditioned response may be a widespread means of evolutionary adaptation that enhances survival in many organisms – one that may also take place in the cells of higher organisms, including humans. These findings could have practical implications, as well. Genetically engineered microorganisms for fermenting plant materials to produce biofuels, for example, might work more efficiently if they gained the genetic ability to prepare themselves for the next step in the process.
Prof. Yitzhak Pilpel’s research is supported by the Ben May Charitable Trust and Madame Huguette Nazez, Paris, France.
The Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel, is one of the world's top-ranking multidisciplinary research institutions. Noted for its wide-ranging exploration of the natural and exact sciences, the Institute is home to 2,600 scientists, students, technicians, and supporting staff. Institute research efforts include the search for new ways of fighting disease and hunger, examining leading questions in mathematics and computer science, probing the physics of matter and the universe, creating novel materials, and developing new strategies for protecting the environment.
Jennifer Manning | Newswise Science News
Researchers identify potentially druggable mutant p53 proteins that promote cancer growth
09.12.2016 | Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory
Plant-based substance boosts eyelash growth
09.12.2016 | Fraunhofer-Institut für Angewandte Polymerforschung IAP
Physicists of the University of Würzburg have made an astonishing discovery in a specific type of topological insulators. The effect is due to the structure of the materials used. The researchers have now published their work in the journal Science.
Topological insulators are currently the hot topic in physics according to the newspaper Neue Zürcher Zeitung. Only a few weeks ago, their importance was...
In recent years, lasers with ultrashort pulses (USP) down to the femtosecond range have become established on an industrial scale. They could advance some applications with the much-lauded “cold ablation” – if that meant they would then achieve more throughput. A new generation of process engineering that will address this issue in particular will be discussed at the “4th UKP Workshop – Ultrafast Laser Technology” in April 2017.
Even back in the 1990s, scientists were comparing materials processing with nanosecond, picosecond and femtosesecond pulses. The result was surprising:...
Have you ever wondered how you see the world? Vision is about photons of light, which are packets of energy, interacting with the atoms or molecules in what...
A multi-institutional research collaboration has created a novel approach for fabricating three-dimensional micro-optics through the shape-defined formation of porous silicon (PSi), with broad impacts in integrated optoelectronics, imaging, and photovoltaics.
Working with colleagues at Stanford and The Dow Chemical Company, researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign fabricated 3-D birefringent...
In experiments with magnetic atoms conducted at extremely low temperatures, scientists have demonstrated a unique phase of matter: The atoms form a new type of quantum liquid or quantum droplet state. These so called quantum droplets may preserve their form in absence of external confinement because of quantum effects. The joint team of experimental physicists from Innsbruck and theoretical physicists from Hannover report on their findings in the journal Physical Review X.
“Our Quantum droplets are in the gas phase but they still drop like a rock,” explains experimental physicist Francesca Ferlaino when talking about the...
16.11.2016 | Event News
01.11.2016 | Event News
14.10.2016 | Event News
09.12.2016 | Life Sciences
09.12.2016 | Ecology, The Environment and Conservation
09.12.2016 | Health and Medicine