Previously undiscovered DNA ‘borgs’ found on California wetlands ‘could have significant climate impacts’

‘Imagine a strange foreign entity, neither alive nor dead, that assimilates and shares important genes’

Kelsie Sandoval
In New York
Friday 30 July 2021 17:51 BST

Related: Wildfires impact California’s natural habitats

In California’s muddy wetlands lies a large structure of DNA, otherwise known as “Borg”. Researchers recently discovered this long strand of DNA, according to a new study, whose genes were previously unknown to the scientific community.

Borgs are long strands of DNA that incorporate a host's DNA into its genes.

“I haven’t been this excited about a discovery since CRISPR," study author Dr Jillian Banfield, a geomicrobiologist at the University of California (UC) tweeted, referring to the revolutionary gene-editing tool.

There are a few things that stand out about the borg besides its mysterious nature, and one is its size. Some of the borg’s DNA has up to one million base pairs, nearly a third of the size of its host, believed to be a single-celled organism called archaea. The Borgs were discovered in the mud when Dr Banfield and her students went hunting for viruses.

The researchers also think the borgs are extrachromosomal element (ECEs), which is DNA that lives outside of the chromosomes.

The borgs’ gene composition is unique, too. "Their genes are quite different from what you would find on previously described ECEs," Basem Al-Shayeb, a UC graduate research fellow and co-author of the study which is yet to be peer-reviewed, told LiveScience. Rather than having a circular shape, the borgs’ genes are linear and repetitive.

"Imagine a strange foreign entity, neither alive nor dead, that assimilates and shares important genes,” Dr Banfield said.

While researchers remain unclear about the purpose of the genes, they suspect the borgs might play a role in processing methane, a chemical found in soil. "This means they could have significant climate impacts,” Dr Banfield added.

Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas which has more than 80 times the warming power of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

The researchers also found that the borgs’ genes helped with certain processes: protein production, converting nitrogen into organic compounds, and extracellular electron transfer.

But not every researcher is jazzed about the borgs’ mystery. Mart Krupovic, an archaeal virologist at the Pasteur Institute who was not involved in the study, told Chemical & Engineering News that the borgs may just be amegaplasmid, which are large and also lives outside of the chromosomes.

Either way, Mr Al-Shayeb said the borgs are still an exciting discovery. "It will be a great adventure to learn more about them."

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