Using a new technique that dramatically speeds up gene research, scientists have discovered 400 genes in roundworms that are related to fat production and storage.

To study a gene’s effects, scientists deactivate it and determine what impact this has on an organism. Organisms with deactivated genes are known as knockouts.

With traditional techniques it can take up to six weeks to produce a knockout roundworm, or C. elegans. The new technique involves feeding engineered bacteria to the worms, whose immune systems recognize the genetic material carried by the bacteria as foreign and destroy it — along with the same sequence in their own genetic code. Presto: Instant knockouts.

For this study, Harvard geneticist Gary Ruvkun used the technique to locate 300 genes that when deactivated caused worms to remain thin and 100 genes that when deactivated caused them to grow fat.

Humans share about half of the roundworm’s 19,000 genes, including 200 related to fat production and storage.
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