Glowing Bacteria: Future Warning System

Philip Rhie/Guardian

UCSD professors caused a stir in the academic community with their discovery of blinking genetic cells of bacteria. The researchers discovered how to synchronize colonies of cultured E. coli bacteria to give off a fluorescent light in unison. The procedure is meant to alter the bacteria’s frequencies to react to environmental changes.

Associate professor of biology and bioengineering Jeff Hasty and associate director of UCSD’s BioCircuits Institute Lev Tsimring detailing their findings in the science journal Nature last Tuesday.

The duo described how their discovery was built off their work from last year, when Hasty and Tsimring first induced a fluorescent flash in cultured E. coli cells by injecting them with a manufactured virus that changed their genetic makeup.

Next, the scientists stimulated the cells using positive and negative feedback components to design a network of synchronized bacteria.

The synchronization of these cells and their flashing has helped scientists understand more about the patterns of communications between organisms.

Hasty said that the fluorescent flashes, or oscillations, may possibly be used in health care.

“We use these oscillations as a type of sensor,” he said. “When they are individual and out of sync, we just see noise — but together, they make a signal.”

According to Hasty, this fluorescent signal could be used as a biosensor that can distinguish patterns in an environment and react to them. For example, the bacteria could be used to indicate the frequency of drugs administered to a patient by sensing the time interval between doses.

The research could also one day lead to genetic sensors that would provide humans with early warning of potential environmental threats, such as temperature changes or poisons.

Hasty and Tsimring emphasized that the research was highly theoretical and said that they will move on to testing neural connections in mammals and work on finding different ways to apply this discovery to practical pharmaceutical uses.

The project is an extension of the work done at UCSD’s new BioCircuits Institute, which opened in Urey Hall last July. The institute focuses on the study of cell networks such as neurons, and how they might be controlled.

Tsimring said that learning how to control small portions of gene circuitry — such as the synchronization of the E. coli cultures — allows researchers to understand more about how the cell bodies work as a whole.

The BioCircuits Institute studies the biological networks that regulate cell activity, such as fluoresent flashing, and organisms’ responses to their environment.

“We’re bringing together people in neural connectivity and biological connectivity, and showing that there is a mathematical similarity so they can share ideas,” Hasty said.

Readers can contact Henry Becker at hbecker@ucsd.edu.

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