Like the Borg of Star Trek, these ‘aliens’ assimilate DNA from other microbes

October 20, 2022

Only a meter or two below our feet dwells a wealth of microbes whose riches remain largely unexplored. It’s a realm where bacteria, bacteria-like organisms called archaea and fungi mingle with viruses and other non-living bits of DNA or DNA — all living with, in or on one another.

In that alien world, researchers have now found large DNA molecules that aren’t quite viruses, which are DNA or RNA wrapped in proteins, but that seem to have infected archaea and acquired along the way a slew of genes from their archaeal hosts.

The researchers dubbed these microbes Borgs because, analogous to the fictional Borg aliens from the world of Star Trek, they assimilate pieces of the microbes they infect.

The fact that real-life Borgs contain repetitive DNA sequences between genes and even within genes, analogous to the Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats in bacteria that gave CRISPR its name, makes Jill Banfield of the University of California, Berkeley, suspect there may be applications of Borgs that are just as revolutionary. Banfield, a UC Berkeley professor of earth and planetary science and of environmental science policy and management and a faculty scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab), is the senior author of a paper about Borgs that was published this week in the journal Nature.

“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 she uploaded a preprint of the paper to bioRxiv.

Berkeley News