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Synthetic bacteria

Synthetic bacteria

Genetically engineered microbes may serve a variety of purposes:

  • Manufacturing other substances such as medicines and vitamins
  • Delivery of various substances to specific targets in the body
  • Protect teeth from cavities
  • Help handle lactose intolerance

Engineering Edible Bacteria

Probiotics, a field that seeks to use edible bacteria to improve human health, may soon undergo a metamorphosis. Students at MIT and Caltech are using the techniques of synthetic biology to create bacteria that fight cavities, produce vitamins, and treat lactose intolerance, as part of the International Genetically Engineered Machines (iGEM) competition at MIT. The new research might lead to a cheaper way to produce medicines or improve diets in the developing world.

Synthetic biology is the quest to design and build novel organisms that perform useful functions. Much research in the field has concentrated on using bacteria as a factory: one of its early successes was the development of microbes that produce malaria medicine. Other research has investigated targeted delivery vehicles, such as microbes engineered to bring medicine to a specific part of the body. But the new projects are attempts to enhance the health benefits of edible bacteria.

Swimming bacteria may be able to handle the delivery end of getting a therapeutic substance to the right target inside the body.

Voyage of the Bacteria Bots

The 1966 science-fiction movie Fantastic Voyage famously imagined using a tiny ship to combat disease inside the body. With the advent of nanotechnology, researchers are inching closer to creating something almost as fantastic. A microscopic device that could swim through the bloodstream and directly target the site of disease, such as a tumor, could offer radical new treatments. To get to a tumor, however, such a device would have to be small and agile enough to navigate through a labyrinth of tiny blood vessels, some far thinner than a human hair.

Researchers at the École Polytechnique de Montréal, in Canada, led by professor of computer engineering Sylvain Martel, have coupled live, swimming bacteria to microscopic beads to develop a self-propelling device, dubbed a nanobot. While other scientists have previously attached bacteria to microscopic particles to take advantage of their natural propelling motion, Martel’s team is the first to show that such hybrids can be steered through the body using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).

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