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Manipulating bacteria: The growing interest in synthetic microbiology

Sep 20, 2018

Along with our new found interest in the microbiome, bio hacking is becoming the ‘next big thing’ in microbiology.

Synthetic Biology / Microbiology was very well explained in a recent New Scientist Article on Bio coding living cells:

“Synthetic biology aims to make it possible to treat cells as machines that can be engineered and programmed. By altering a microbe’s native DNA, it can be made to perform a specific task, such as producing a drug or changing colour to detect a virus in blood.”1

We are engineering bacteria like we never have before and in all sorts of different ways.

Below are a few examples of how bio hacking is changing our world:

Bacteria paints a picture

Researchers at MIT have programmed e coli bacteria to respond to specific colour beams of light (red, blue, green), the bacteria then responds to the relevant colour by outputting that particular colour (creating patterns / an image).

To create this experiment, researchers modified the bacteria with the addition of 18 extra genes. The single cell organisms use sensory signals to sense the light and then respond to it. The researchers modified the bacteria so that it responded to colour beams of light in a particular way (colour output).

By controlling gene expression, the researchers created colourful bacterial art but more importantly, it demonstrates the speed at which synthetic biology is advancing.

Story can be found here:



Bacteria talks to us

Similar experiments with light were conducted several years ago but in these experiments, the light was used to allow bacteria to communicate with humans. This time the genes were engineered so that the bacteria emitted coloured light in response to environmental factors. For example, they would emit a particular colour if they were too hot. The researchers then changed that particular factor, for example, reduced the temperature and the bacteria responded by emitting different levels of light giving an indication of whether the temperature (or other factors) was more suitable for them.

Story can be found here:

Bacteria can help us save our buildings

One example of how bio engineering microbes can be used effectively in the ‘real world’ is the concrete repairing ‘bio-cement’ that has been developed by British students. In this case, engineered soil bacteria is being developed to aid in preventing subsidence in buildings. The idea is that the bacteria repairs concrete foundations that may have become unstable.

The bacteria ‘Bacillus subtilis’ is used and added to soil. Once added, the bacteria produces an enzyme that results in the creation of a calcite deposit. The bacteria will gather within cracks in the concrete and will clump together to repair and bind the concrete. The bacteria will self destruct before being able to affect surrounding materials.

This could be utilised in areas that are most affected by subsidence such as earthquake and land erosion zones.

Story can be found here:


Bacteria can help save lives

Bacteria was engineered to produce and carry cancer drugs to the site of a tumour before self destructing. This allows treatment to reach within the tumour which is not always guaranteed with conventional methods.

Story can be found here:


Bacteria can help save the planet

E Coli bacteria has been genetically modified to locate, identify and degrade plastics. The genetically engineered bacteria releases an enzyme that degrades the plastic. This could aid in breaking down micro plastics in the ocean as well as notifying researchers where large areas of micro plastics are present. Due to the modification, the bacteria releases an electric charge once it has degraded the plastic. By measuring the voltage of this charge, researchers can estimate the amount of plastic that was found and broken down.

Story can be found here:

The above is just a small snapshot of what has and is being currently achieved in the field of synthetic biology and biotechnology. This article only scratches the surface of what has been achieved and what researchers are aiming for in the future. One thing’s for sure, engineered micro-organisms are going to play a big part in all areas of our lives in years to come. Isn’t science fascinating?