Pulse 37: Synthetic Biologists Hack Organic Life to Create New Materials and Devices

17 October 2017
Giulio Prisco

Synthetic Biology Bacteria

The most interesting items of bioscience news released last week come from synthetic biology, the science of lab-created life. Synthetic biologists at Duke University have fabricated 3D devices with self-organizing bacterial colonies able to build structures that integrate inorganic materials (see below).

“This approach is inspired by nature, and because nature doesn’t do this on its own, we’ve manipulated nature to do it for us,” said a Duke researcher. “We could use biologically responsive materials to create living circuits,” added another researcher. “Or if we could keep the bacteria alive, you could imagine making materials that could heal themselves and respond to environmental changes.”

“Beware, 3D printers. Self-assembling bacteria are coming for your jobs,” notes The Register. “Specially designed bacteria can organize themselves to make a three-dimensional pressure sensor.” According to Ars Technica, “the real advantage that this system seems to have is that it can mix traditional materials with some of the complicated chemistry that's hard to do anywhere other than a biological system.”

Though not directly related to health, this development highlights the unlimited potential of merging the organic and inorganic worlds, and could lead to clinically useful developments. In related news (see below), Scripps scientists have adapted DNA to create new materials with possible medical applications.

Back to the present, your grandmother was right: Broccoli is really good for you, Penn State researchers have confirmed. Chances are that other health tips from your grandmother were right as well.

Programmable bacterial colonies build devices. Synthetic biologists at Duke University have built a working device by programming bacteria with a synthetic gene circuit that triggers the formation of bacterial colonies able to build structures with inorganic materials. Adding gold nanoparticles, the researchers built a device that can be used as a pressure sensor. The research results, published in Nature Biotechnology, demonstrate the production of a composite structure by programming the cells with the genetic circuit, which is like a biological package of instructions that researchers embed into a bacterium’s DNA.

Modified DNA builds materials for medicine. Chemists at The Scripps Research Institute (TSRI) have adapted DNA to create new substances with possible medical applications. A study, published in Angewandte Chemie, shows how the scientists chemically modified DNA nucleotides, produced useful quantities of the modified DNA, and built a DNA-based, water-absorbing hydrogel that ultimately may have multiple medical and scientific uses.

Magic mushrooms reset the brain for improved mental health. Scientists at Imperial College London have found that psilocybin, the psychoactive compound that occurs naturally in magic mushrooms, can be used to treat a small number of patients with depression in whom conventional treatment had failed. A study published in Scientific Reports shows that patients taking psilocybin to treat depression show reduced symptoms weeks after treatment following a 'reset' of their brain activity.

Synthetic bryostatin for cancer, Alzheimer’s and HIV drugs. Chemists at Stanford University have found new efficient ways to synthesize in the lab a scarce chemical compound, bryostatin, found in marine life. The compound is expected to be effective for cancer immunotherapy, as well as for treating Alzheimer’s disease and HIV, but existing supplies aren’t sufficient for rigorous testing. The research results, published in Science, could open simpler and more efficient ways to make this increasingly in-demand compound in the lab.

Modified sugar against liver cancer. RIKEN scientists in Japan have discovered a way to prevent the spread of cancer in the liver. A study published in Cell Chemical Biology details how treatment with a modified fucose sugar (FUC) can disrupt a biological pathway, which in turn blocks hepatoma - cancer cells in the liver - from invading healthy liver cells. According to the researchers, the invasion-suppressive property of the fucose analog make it a potentially promising treatment for suppressing cancer metastasis in certain cancers, such as those found in the liver.

CRISPR gene editing identifies genes that protect against diseases. Using a modified version of the CRISPR genome-editing system, MIT researchers have developed a new way to screen for genes that protect against specific diseases. A study published in Molecular Cell shows how the scientists adapted CRISPR to randomly turn on or off distinct gene sets across large populations of cells and identify genes that protect cells from a protein associated with Parkinson’s disease. According to the scientists, the new method offers a new way to seek drug targets for many diseases, not just Parkinson’s.

Platinum nanoparticles effectively fight bladder cancer in mice. Johns Hopkins researchers have developed a way to successfully deliver nano-sized, platinum-based chemotherapy drugs to treat a form of bladder cancer. The research results, published in Clinical Cancer Research, show that the nanoparticles, when administered through a catheter directly to the bladder, reduced the proliferation of cancer cells in laboratory mice and rats without leaching into to the bloodstream, which would be toxic and bring unwanted side effects to the whole body.

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