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J Biol Eng. 2012 Sep 4;6(1):13. doi: 10.1186/1754-1611-6-13.

Evolutionary principles and synthetic biology: avoiding a molecular tragedy of the commons with an engineered phage.

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Section of Integrative Biology, The University of Texas, Austin, USA.



In prior work, adding a gene to phage T7 that degraded the host K1 capsule facilitated growth when plated on capsulated hosts. However, the transgenic protein (an endosialidase) is expressed as an exoenzyme, released from the cell at lysis but unattached to the phage particle. There is thus the possibility that the gene will be subject to a tragedy of the commons and be selected against, if the enzyme benefits other genomes.


This evolutionary perspective was supported in short term experiments. The genome carrying the endosialidase gene was favored on a capsulated host if grown in physical isolation of control genomes (lacking the gene) but was selected against otherwise.


These results challenge efforts to engineer phages with exoenzymes that degrade biofilm polymers. If biofilms do not facilitate spatially structured phage growth, the transgenic enzymes may be rapidly eliminated from the phage population after release in the environment, even if the transgene benefits overall phage growth on the biofilm.

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