Humans Teach Bacteria New Language

A group of scientists lead by Professor James C. Liao are engineering an artificial cell-to-cell communication network by teaching bacteria to communicate with each other and to work together in a whole new way. Bacteria commonly use chemicals to signal each other; the researchers sought to get bacteria to use different chemicals. The intent of the research is to achieve "novel, nonnative behavior in bacteria."

The team demonstrated that Escherichia coli bacteria could be taught to communicate with each other in new ways by adding new control genes into the bacteria's genome. The engineered cells talk with each other by secreting acetate, which is a normal by-product of E. Coli metabolism. However, once a defined concentration of acetate has been reached, the engineered cells have a specific reaction: the whole bacterial culture responds in concert by producing a green fluorescent protein - they light up. The result: a tunable quorum sensing circuit.

The authors believe that this cell-to-cell communication can "improve the biological production of chemicals and enable the construction of intelligent biocircuits." Eventually, they could get different kinds of cells to communicate who today ignore each other.

Highly organized, multicellular fans of science fiction writer Greg Bear are naturally horrified by this new development. In his terrific (and hopefully not prophetic) 1984 story Blood Music, Bear tells the story of how ordinary B-lymphocytes within the human body were transformed into intellectual cells and were taught to communicate and work together in new ways. I don't want to give away the ending, but let's just say that inventing the bacterial equivalent of Esperanto turned out to be a grandega miskalkuli. ;)

See also the reference article - Design of artificial cell-cell communication using gene and metabolic networks. The original story article was found here.

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