In a scenario eerily similar to Jurassic Park, scientists working at Georgia Tech have successfully revived an ancient 500 million-year-old gene by hybridizing it with modern E Coli bacteria. The new strain of bacteria, which has now survived through 1,000 generations, may help scientists better understand the evolutionary trajectories taken by primitive organisms.
The experiment, which was conducted by Betül Kaçar, a NASA astrobiology postdoctoral fellow, was an attempt to see "evolution in action." She was able to achieve this remarkable feat of genetic resurrection using a process known as "paleo-experimental evolution."
And interestingly, the "chimeric" bacteria has already started to mutate — in some cases becoming stronger and healthier than today's varients. Writing in The Daily Mail, Rob Waugh explains:
‘The altered organism wasn't as healthy or fit as its modern-day version, at least initially,' said [Eric] Gaucher, ‘and this created a perfect scenario that would allow the altered organism to adapt and become more fit as it accumulated mutations with each passing day.'
The growth rate eventually increased and, after the first 500 generations, the scientists sequenced the genomes of all eight lineages to determine how the bacteria adapted.
Not only did the fitness levels increase to nearly modern-day levels, but also some of the altered lineages actually became healthier than their modern counterpart.
When the researchers looked closer, they noticed that every EF-Tu gene did not accumulate mutations. Instead, the modern proteins that interact with the ancient EF-Tu inside of the bacteria had mutated and these mutations were responsible for the rapid adaptation that increased the bacteria's fitness.
In short, the ancient gene has not yet mutated to become more similar to its modern form, but rather, the bacteria found a new evolutionary trajectory to adapt.
As Kaçar noted in a Wired.co.uk article, "We want to know if an organism's history limits its future and if evolution always leads to a single, defined point or whether evolution has multiple solutions to a given problem."
The results were presented at the recent NASA International Astrobiology Science Conference, but you can learn more about this experiment at Georgia Tech.