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Resistance is futile, because Star Trek’s Borg are real and can assimilate DNA from microbes

By Elizabeth Rayne

Can you imagine being assimilated into the Borg? These robot-humanoids are the kind of nightmare fuel that has invaded every Star Trek fan’s nightmares, and now, they have landed.

They are the beginning, the end, the one who is many. The difference between the real Borg and what you saw Picard morph into is that they aren’t a band of cyborgs trying to turn you into one of them, but previously unknown DNA structures that unexpectedly emerged out of mud that a team of reserachers led by Basem Al-Shayeb and Jill Banfield were analyzing. As if that doesn't sound alien enough, they assimilate whatever genes they want.

Just like the fictional version, Borg are scavengers that take genetic material from microorganisms (instead of tech or knowledge from other planets) and then “assimilate” it for their own needs. They are thought to have spawned in a single-celled organism that has not yet been identified. Wherever they came from, they carry massive strings of genes, many of which have never been seen before.

“There have never been such giant linear elements previously in archaea,” Al-Shayeb told SYFY WIRE. "The fact that their genomes are one third of the size of their host’s genome was remarkable to us, and their hosts are Methanoperedens, methane-oxidizing archaea that extract methane from their environment and metabolize it."

Liz DNA Strands

Archea are microbial life-forms that only look like bacteria. They are actually extremophilic microbes that are usually found in hot temperatures, from hydrothermal vents at the bottom of the ocean to anoxic mud like the type the Borg were discovered in, and some can produce methane when operating in groups. This explains why so many Borg genes were assimilated from one particular species. Methane is a greenhouse gas that Methanoperedens can digest and break down. It can be 25 to 30 percent more detrimental to the environment than carbon dioxide, and much of it comes from (surprise) landfills. Borgs that add the methane-digeseting gene to their own huge DNA strings can do the same. 

As extrachromosomal elements (ECEs) that Borgs can assimilate all sorts of genes, whether or not they are actually necessary. In most microbes, primary genes are encoded on just one or two chromosomes, but they are capable of hosting multiple ECEs that give them more DNA they can use. Previous studies of large ECEs in archaea showed that they are capable of exchanging fragments of DNA sequences. This might explain why the Borg can borrow genes from methane-destroying archaea and perform the same functions as the microbes.

What makes Borgs stand out from other ECEs is their size. They typically have between 600,000 and 1 million base pairs of DNA, which can be up to a third as long as the main chromosome of a microbe they assimilate some of that DNA from. Borgs are also linear, though most ECEs tend to form as circular structures. Some Borg genetic sequences repeat themselves within and between other genes as well as at each end. They can also carry genes that power metabolic processes such as digesting methane, and while not enough is known about them to come to a definite conclusion, their power to assimilate might have come out of evolution. 

"Borgs might act as a repository for genes that contribute to the evolution of new functionalities in their hosts," said Al-Shayeb, "Gene duplication has been known to do this, which would explain the presence of a large number of shared genes between the host and the Borgs. If this is true, it would be very exciting from an evolutionary perspective, but they could simply turbo-boost the functionalities that they carry when in their hosts."

Banfield’s team found out everything they know about Borgs so far through genetic sequencing that compared hundreds of Borg gene sequences with known genes. Since Methanoperedens cannot yet be cultured in a lab, that was the only way to get closer to the Borg. Archaea are some of the least studied microorgnaisms on the planet, and scientists have not yet found out how to grow them in a lab for more in-depth studies. No one really knows what they need to thrive and how they carry out metabolic and other processes. Al-Shayeb believes that finding out exactly how archaea process methane and how the Borg assimilate the gene that allows them to could revolutionize how we confront global warming. 

"Instead of growing these microbes, we took trillions of DNA fragments from the environment and pieced them together using computer programs to look at the encoded DNA of such organisms," he said. "In studying environments rife with Methanoperedens, we found giant linear genomes that didn’t belong to any known domain of life."

Despite how many genes they assimilate, Borgs, like viruses, do not have most of the genes required for life and cannot be considered independent organisms. Some have doubts about whethr Borgs are even real because they seem to have crawled straight out of science fiction. There are other things they could pass as, such as certain types of bacteria or plasmids, which are strands of DNA in single-celled organisms that can duplicate themselves.

"Borgs most likely use some method of homologous recombination between their genomes and the genomes of the hosts (and other Borgs, as we’ve seen) to assimilate genes," Al-Shayeb said. "Their specific methods are still under active investigation."

No matter who questions the Borg, DNA will be assimilated. Resistance is futile.