Unlocking nature's secrets: Engineers create bacteria with unnatural amino acid synthesis abilities

A team of engineers has designed bacteria capable of producing an extraordinary amino acid never seen in nature.
Abdul-Rahman Oladimeji Bello
Microscopic bacteria
Microscopic bacteria


A team of researchers has achieved a remarkable feat that could revolutionize the world of medicine and disease treatment. They have successfully created bacteria capable of synthesizing an amino acid that has never been observed in nature. 

This study focused on a unique amino acid called para-nitro-L-phenylalanine, or pN-Phe for short. Now, you might be wondering, what makes pN-Phe so special? Well, it turns out that pN-Phe has the incredible ability to aid the immune system in responding to proteins that it would typically ignore. It's like giving our immune system a powerful pair of binoculars to spot and neutralize those sneaky culprits responsible for causing diseases.

Dr. Kunjapur, one of the researchers involved in this project, explained, "pN-Phe has a nice history in the literature. It can be attached to a protein from a mouse, reintroduced into mice, and the immune system will no longer tolerate the original version of that protein." Imagine the potential for treating and preventing diseases caused by these troublesome proteins that seem to evade our immune system's grasp.

Expansion of the genetic code to synthesize amino acids

But how did they manage to accomplish this seemingly impossible task? The team combined two powerful techniques: genetic code expansion and metabolic engineering. Expanding the genetic code increased the variety of amino acids encoded by DNA. 

Then, using metabolic engineering, they developed a system within the bacteria that could autonomously produce nitrated proteins. It's like rewriting the genetic recipe of these organisms to equip them with the ability to produce an entirely new ingredient.

Unlocking nature's secrets: Engineers create bacteria with unnatural amino acid synthesis abilities
Microbiologist working and examining cultures in petri dishes

"This amino acid we targeted was unconventional, and many scientists in our field might not have expected that it could be made using biosynthesis," said Dr. Kunjapur, highlighting the surprising nature of their breakthrough.

While this accomplishment is already impressive, the researchers are not stopping here. They plan to optimize their methods to produce larger quantities of nitrated proteins and extend their work to other microorganisms. 

Their ultimate goal is to refine this platform for applications related to vaccines and immunotherapies to enhance our ability to combat various diseases. Their work has already garnered recognition, as Dr. Kunjapur received the prestigious 2021 AIChE Langer Prize and the 2022 National Institutes of Health Director's New Innovator Award.

This achievement has led Dr. Kunjapur and Neil Butler, a doctoral candidate and the study's first author, to co-found Nitro Biosciences. Their vision is to leverage the potential of bacteria as drug delivery vehicles. Imagine bacteria acting as microscopic superheroes, producing specific antigens within the body and simultaneously illuminating them with the power of nitration. It's like giving our immune system the ultimate spotlight to effectively identify and neutralize these antigens.

In the words of Butler, "The implications are interesting because we can take a bacterium's central metabolism, its ability to produce different compounds, and with a few modifications, expand its chemical repertoire." The flexibility of bacterial metabolism demonstrated by this research paves the way for a whole new level of scientific exploration.

Prepare to witness a new era in disease treatment and prevention as these engineers continue to unravel the mysteries of bacteria and their potential as powerful allies in our battle against illnesses. The future looks brighter, thanks to their groundbreaking discoveries and relentless pursuit of scientific excellence.

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