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Scientists found a way to turn genes in bacteria on and off to produce fuel and medicine

Posted August 30, 2019

The word “bacteria” sounds scary for some, because some cause difficult infections. However, we live in the world of bacteria. There are more bacteria on Earth than there is people. And so we might as well take advantage of them. A new gene editing tool could make bacteria into little factories to produce medicine and fuels, as well as many other useful compounds.

Escherichia coli is one of the best researched bacterium in the world and now scientists found a way to edit its genes to make it useful in several specific roles. Image credit: Haynathart via Wikimedia

Scientists from the University of Edinburgh invented a new hi-tech gene technology, known as programmable gene activation. It could allow us to force bacteria to produce a range of useful products. Various chemicals, useful in pharmaceuticals or fuels could be produced in a green and cheap way, by bacteria with some artificially enhanced or enabled genes. Not only that, programmable gene activation allows scientists targeting genes that are typically difficult to reach. These are the ones usually causing infections and other health problems. In fact, this new method ensures levels of gene activation that are around 100 times higher than what is possible using existing techniques.

We already have methods to turn genes of bacteria on and off, but they are typically limited to basic genes involved in bacterial survival. This new technique, designed by adapting methods from an approach that uses scissor-like CRISPR molecules, allows making precise changes to the genetic code. The technique was created for Escherichia coli and soil bacterium bacteria, which are both widely studied across the world. Scientists also developed a reusable scanning platform, which helps activating the specific genes cheaper and quicker.

Dr Baojun Wang, one of the authors of the study, said: “This new method has the potential to be a powerful tool for programing bacteria, with diverse applications for research and industry. It could help save a lot of time and money”. Obviously, the technique is going to be very useful in a variety of applications. Bacteria can be used to produce fuel from organic waste. By turning some genes on or off, we could improve this process, creating more yield and making the entire process more efficient.

Bacterial cultures can also be used to produce various compounds for medicine. Again, this is already being done today, but programmable gene activation could make this process cheaper and faster. Also, this technique will become a research tool, allowing for deeper investigation into life-threatening infections.

Earth is a planet of bacteria and we have to learn to use them better. Hopefully, programmable gene activation will help us turn bacteria into our own little factories.


Source: University of Edinburgh

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