Friday, January 02, 2009

Microbial Communities Can Form "Super - Organisms" to Produce Fuels and Other Products Beyond the Ability of Single Microbe Species to Create

Synthetic biologists are working to find ways to manipulate entire microbe communities to get them to do things they ordinarily wouldn’t — like tracking down cancer cells to deliver drugs, fighting antibiotic-resistant infections or manufacturing fuel. _ScienceNews
Most of the microbial approaches to bio-fuels and synthetic fuels involves the attempt to find or create the perfect microbe. This perfect microbe would be able to turn feedstock into a valuable fuel, virtually on its own. But it is possible that a community of multiple microbe species working together might be able to out-perform even the "perfect microbe." Using Adam Smith's famous specialisation of labour, microbe production workers may show the same improved productivity that human factory workers demonstrate on the job.
Ideally, a synthetic bioengineer would be able to choose from a number of organisms to design a community capable of getting the job done. At the moment, most labs are focusing on ways to engineer communities of bacteria made up of a single species because these systems are better characterized and easier to manipulate than multispecies groups. And bacteria’s well-studied system for communicating provides a way for scientists to steer the conversations among congregating microbes by changing the way they talk to each other....

Bacteria sense their neighbors and respond to the presence of others in the colony by exchanging small molecules and bits of proteins called peptides — a process known as quorum sensing. Through this exchange, bacteria send and receive chemical cues that turn genes off or on. This process enables many types of bacteria not only to communicate with their neighbors, but also to collaborate in intricate ways to divide labor and perform tasks requiring multiple steps. At first, quorum sensing, discovered in marine bacteria, seemed a special ability, but in the time since its discovery, scientists have racked up quite a list of chatty microbe species. In fact, some scientists believe that nearly all bacteria communicate in one form or another. _ScienceNews



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