Creating living cell factories

“We make bacteria do amazing things.”

Researchers at the University of Adelaide and the Pasteur Institute in France are creating biological factories within cells to make and detect molecules for a wide range of uses in health, environmental monitoring and industry.

Synthetic biology—the application of engineering principles to build new biological parts, circuits and devices—has been used to build tumour-killing bacteria, for example, and has great potential for green chemistry that uses fermentation rather than petrochemicals.

According to Associate Professor Keith Shearwin at the University of Adelaide, the team has developed new tools to speed up ‘synbio’ science and biosensors that can detect molecules in the environment.

“We make bacteria do amazing things by integrating biological pathways, which we call circuits, into the bacterial genome. These circuits can be custom designed to create proteins, polymers or other molecules,” he says.

“We’ve recently been able to increase the number of integration positions where circuits can be installed in the E. coli genome. Plus, we’ve sped up the construction of these cell factories, so scientists can create new molecules faster,” Keith says.

The collaboration has been successful so far and currently consists of four researchers and a PhD student involved across the two institutions.

“Synthetic biology has a valuable philosophy of sharing and open access, which is great. But organised international collaboration and cooperation is vital for efficient and exciting scientific progress,” Keith says.

In other projects, the team has constructed circuits that monitor whether DNA-binding proteins are performing efficiently or not, and circuits that cause bacteria to glow red when they encounter particular substances, such as vitamin B7.

This could allow bacteria to become living diagnostic tools sensing and responding to the presence of substances in a range of environments, including the human gut.

Banner image: The tools of synthetic biology could transform bacteria into chemical factories and diagnostic sensors. Credit: USDA