Cracking the Gene Frontier

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In a first of its kind, a group of Indian scientists from across the country have decoded the entire genetic makeup of a bacterium without the help of any foreign scientists. What makes this project even more notable is that it might help create a strong tuberculosis (TB) vaccine.

Their subject was Mycobacterium indicus pranii (MIP), a soil-inhabiting bacterium considered friendly to humans but also, incidentally, the progenitor of the harmful TB and leprosy bacteria.

According to the scientists involved in the research, in various clinical trials, MIP has proven beneficial in the treatment of ailments like TB, TB-HIV, and different types of cancer. It is also used as a vaccine against leprosy. However, so far, no one had attempted to sequence its genetic make-up. “We were interested in this bacterium because of its beneficial properties, and also because its other variants cause tuberculosis and leprosy bacteria,” says Dr Anil Talwar, a professor at the Department of Biochemistry in University of Delhi, and one of the scientists involved in this research.

The research team was drawn from scientists at University of Delhi, University of Hyderabad, IIT-Delhi and the National Institute of Plant Genome Research. It was a six-year-long research project. Their findings were recently published in the journal Nucleic Acids Research.

The study is also expected to have benefits in the domain of public health. It will offer new insights into the evolutionary history of the bacteria responsible for TB and leprosy, and show the genetic story of how a harmless bacterial species like MIP underwent changes over a period of time to give rise to TB. The project has also led to the identification of a number of proteins that are responsible for the beneficial effects demonstrated by MIP. Many of these proteins are incidentally absent from the vaccine strain Bacillus Calmette–Guérin (BCG) that is used against TB. The scientists now plan to transfer these genes to BCG and test the resulting vaccine strain against both TB and leprosy. “If it works, that will be a massive plus for public health and disease control in India,” claims Dr Talwar.