Bionic bacterium to produce biofuels and drugs

Bionic bacteriumA bionic bacterium, would that be the bacterial equivalent of the six million dollar man from the equally named 70’s tv show, with enhanced strength, speed and vision? Unfortunately the answer is no.

With man-made amino acids in its DNA it can however, in theory, make an endless supply of synthetic chemicals, like biofuels and medicine.

Unnatural amino acids

The research team from the Salk Institute for Biological Studies is the first ever to manage to incorporate unnatural amino acids (Uaas) into a bacterium’s proteins. Like the bacteria’s own DNA, these artificial amino acids can code for certain building blocks.

By varying the kind of amino acids, different synthetic chemicals could be produced by such bacteria. This can vary from creating more efficient drugs to manufacturing chemicals in an environmentally friendly manner.

Genetically modified

The results were published in the journal Nature Chemical Biology. In effect the genetic code of the bacteria was expanded, overriding the cell’s genetic code. So instead of making proteins it can use as a building block for itself, it now produces proteins it is programmed to make.

Genetically modified bacteria have been used for years to produce medicine, with insulin as probably the most well-known example. But the DNA of those bacteria was only modified using DNA-strains of other organisms, as opposed to Uaas.

Seemingly endless possibilities

What is even more remarkable is that the team managed to incorporate amino acids into several places of the bacteria’s DNA, without it dying or rejecting them. This in theory makes it possible for the bacteria to produce any chemical substance, as long as it is made of proteins. From biofuels, to solvents to medicine, the possibilities seem endless.

© Jorn van Dooren |

Comments are closed.