Thursday, December 29, 2011

A World Bathed in the Glow of Bacterial Light

Scientists are becoming more clever at manipulating microbes to perform basic tasks. In this story, bacteria were taught to glow in synchrony, with the aim of creating microbial sensors to detect toxic gases. Similar technologies will soon be used to tweak microbes into producing valuable chemicals and fuels, and much more.

UCSD scientists have trained E. Coli bacteria to glow in synchrony, like a light chorus. The synchrony arises when colonies of bacteria on microfluidic chips communicate via gas channels. More:
Their achievement, detailed in this week’s advance online issue of the journal Nature, involved attaching a fluorescent protein to the biological clocks of the bacteria, synchronizing the clocks of the thousands of bacteria within a colony, then synchronizing thousands of the blinking bacterial colonies to glow on and off in unison.

...Using the same method to create the flashing signs, the researchers engineered a simple bacterial sensor capable of detecting low levels of arsenic. In this biological sensor, decreases in the frequency of the oscillations of the cells’ blinking pattern indicate the presence and amount of the arsenic poison.

Because bacteria are sensitive to many kinds of environmental pollutants and organisms, the scientists believe this approach could be also used to design low cost bacterial biosensors capable of detecting an array of heavy metal pollutants and disease-causing organisms. And because the senor is composed of living organisms, it can respond to changes in the presence or amount of the toxins over time unlike many chemical sensors.

...Hasty said he believes that within five years, a small hand-held sensor could be developed that would take readings of the oscillations from the bacteria on disposable microfluidic chips to determine the presence and concentrations of various toxic substances and disease-causing organisms in the field. _UCSD
"This development illustrates how basic, quantitative knowledge of cellular circuitry can be applied to the new discipline of synthetic biology," said James Anderson at the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute of General Medical Sciences, in a university statement.

The new chips can be used for the production of biochemicals, tissue engineering, and biosensors that continually monitor the environment, rather than offer a one-off test that must be replaced every time new readings are needed. Besides the obvious practical uses, the sensors offer good aesthetics: The new "biopixels" come in beautiful shades of blue. _FastCoexist
Imagine if all the microbes in the world were to glow in the dark. Should that happen, humans might begin to comprehend the real inhabitants of Earth, in terms of number and mass. At that point, these slightly advanced apes might begin to understand the promise of bio-technologies.

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