Research in the News: Setting a course for genomic islands

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(Illustration by Michael S. Helfenbein)

Yale University scientists are exploring uncharted genomic islands to study new chemistry between bacteria and their hosts, from invertebrates to humans.

One such discovery, by assistant professor of chemistry Jason Crawford, a member of the Chemical Biology Institute at West Campus, and postdoctoral researcher Xun Guo, is published in the journal Chemistry & Biology. The findings describe a biological pathway that contains a hypothetical protein responsible for the formation of a rare, bicyclic sugar.

Genomic islands are segments of DNA often involved in the evolution of bacteria.

In addition to identifying the novel characteristics of the protein itself, the research points to the value of looking at certain clusters of genes for possible uses in pharmacology, the development of antibiotics, and metabolic engineering.

“We look for genomic island content that may include new molecular classes or are enriched with potential new biocatalysts,” Crawford said. “In my lab, we love finding things that look weird. That’s what will lead, potentially, to new biology.”

According to the researchers, the identification of new genes and proteins in recent years has led to a stockpile of natural gene products with no known functions. “Natural products have a rich history of driving pharmacology, because their scaffolding is highly privileged,” Crawford said.

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