Bioengineers at the University of California San Diego have redesigned how E. coli bacteria communicate with each other. This could now help them better control the bacteria they engineer for specific purposes and tasks.
“We hope that this system can increase control and safety of synthetic genetic circuits, and therefore facilitate their transition to real-life applications,” said in a statement Arianna Miano, a UC San Diego bioengineering Ph.D. student and the first author on the new paper.
In the field of biology, bacterial communication systems are known as quorum sensing. Quorum sensing is used by synthetic biologists to get bacteria to perform all kinds of tasks ranging from drug delivery to environmental sensing.
However, these quorum-sensing systems are hard to externally regulate. This is where the new research comes in. It allows for better control over how bacteria communicate thus better control of how these same bacteria perform their assigned tasks.
The new quorum-sensing system only functions when bacteria are given a compound called p-coumaric acid, which is found in vegetables and fruits.
“The bacteria coordinate differently according to how much of the p-coumaric acid we provide in the media,” said Miano. “If we give no p-coumaric acid, the bacteria can't communicate with each other, but when we provide them with medium concentrations they are able to signal and share information on the size of their colony.”
“If we give them too much, they over-produce signaling molecules which tricks them into behaving as if they were always part of a large population,” added Miano.
And this is just the beginning of what this novel quorum sensing system can do. Miano explained that the possibilities of the system are endless especially if coupling it to the expression of different genes.