Ode to Darwin, from Phages to Borgs

Phages first, Borgs then. Jennifer Doudna and Jill Banfield published surprising new findings in Cell, suggesting that thousands of phages have stolen CRISPR from bacteria to deploy it against rivals. “CRISPR is so popular even viruses may use it,” Science jokes. Nature puts it seriously “CRISPR tools found in thousands of viruses could boost gene editing.”

Editing pioneer Fyodor Urnov looks at the big picture: New #CRISPR evidence – from the Doudna and Banfield labs here at the @igisci – to sustain Darwin’s timeless quote from the Origin of Species (came out on this day in 1859): “There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; … from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”

There is a kind of Darwinian grandeur also in the discovery of the Borgs, also published by Doudna and Banfield in Nature. These are huge, weird DNA molecules nicknamed after the aliens from Star Trek because they infect archaeobacteria ingesting their pieces.

“Imagine a strange foreign entity, neither alive nor dead, that assimilates and shares important genes. … A floating toolbox, likely full of blueprints, some that we may one day harness, like CRISPR,” Banfield tweeted last year after uploading the preprint to bioRxiv.

According to Berkeley News, the fact that Borgs contain repetitive DNA sequences between genes and even within genes, similar to CRISPR repeats, makes Banfield think there may be similarly revolutionary applications of the Borgs. Someday perhaps they will conquer labs across the globe, but in the meantime, the Borgs have landed on the cover of Nature.

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