Bacterial colonies could replace chemical factories


A team of researchers led by Harvard geneticist, Dr. George Church, from Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering and Harvard Medical School (HMS) have made great strides in the field of synthetic biology to the extent that in future, genetically engineered bacteria would be the predominant choice for production of valuable chemicals. The concept of manipulating bacteria to synthesize useful chemicals is not a new concept, but the findings of this team suggest a 30-fold increase in chemical output and promises a production timescale that is 1000-fold faster than the currently used methods.

The Wyss institute team achieved this by using evolutionary mechanisms to trick the bacteria (E.coli) into self-eliminating those cells that don’t produce high output of chemicals, thereby ridding the entire process of the need for constant human and technological monitoring. This also reduced the production time by more than 1000-folds!

In this technique, the desired chemical product was made crucial to the bacteria’s survival by modifying their DNA, such that antibiotic-resistant genes are activated only in the presence of a chemical, such as the desired chemical product. At the same time, this modification causes any low-output chemical producer to be killed off by antibiotics. Thus, only the most productive cells generate enough of the chemical to be resistant to the antibiotics and still survive to go onto the next round of evolution. As each evolution cycle progresses, the bacteria produces more of the desired chemical and uses the “survival of the fittest” principle to suppress the weakest producing cells.

“We’re using evolution to select for the cells that only serve our purpose best, making human monitoring less important to that feedback loop and instead relying on the bacteria to self-monitor their production performance,” said Church, the study’s senior author, who is a Wyss Institute core faculty member, professor of genetics at HMS, and professor of health sciences and technology at Harvard and MIT. This research was reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.


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