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The research, which is online in Nature Communications, is a boon for life scientists who systematically engineer bacteria and other organisms to perform tasks they wouldn't naturally do.
"Probiotics are one example," said Matthew Bennett, associate professor of biosciences at Rice and co-lead scientist of the new study. "They're beneficial gut bacteria that are essential for human health, and many synthetic biologists are looking at ways to design probiotics that can diagnose or fight disease. Such engineered probiotics would be able to produce drugs or other complex molecules within the human body to fight diseases ranging from cancer to inflammatory bowel disease."
Drugs - Body - Doors - Disease - Bennett
Producing drugs when and where they are needed in the body would open new doors for fighting disease, but, Bennett said, synthetic biologists have struggled to design circuits that are precise enough for drug delivery.
"Synthetic biologists need to create genes that turn on or off in response to environmental cues," he said. "These act as sensors, allowing the probiotic to produce the drug when it is needed based on environmental cues."
Bacteria - Escherichia - Coli - Bennett - Graduate
Using the bacteria Escherichia coli, Bennett, graduate student Ye Chen, postdoctoral researchers Joanne Ho and David Shis and colleagues from the University of Houston, employed modular molecular building blocks to create promoters that turn genes on and off as much as needed.
While genetic circuits are like electric circuits in some ways, the switches for turning them on and off are far more complicated. By themselves, genes cannot make the proteins they encode. Instead, specialized enzymes read the genes and stamp out proteins based on what they read. Gene promoters are another specialist in this process.
Promoter - Gene - Bennett - Decoding - Determines
"A promoter drives a gene," Bennett said. "It initiates the decoding and determines when the gene is turned on or off.
"Synthetic biologists have been engineering promoter regions to respond to different chemical cues, but we have...
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