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Growing bacteria keep time, know their place

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Working with a synthetic gene circuit designed to coax bacteria to grow in a predictable ring pattern, Duke University scientists have revealed an underappreciated contributor to natural pattern formation: time.

In a series of experiments published Oct. 8, 2013, in the journal Molecular Systems Biology, associate professor of biomedical engineering Lingchong You and his colleagues show that their engineered gene circuit functions as a timing mechanism, triggering a predictable ring growth pattern that adjusts to the size of its environment.

The unexpected result provides a potential explanation for how organs such as the heart and lungs know when to stop growing and runs counter to established theories, one of which dates back to computer pioneer Alan Turing. The finding also lays a foundation for engineering patterned bacteria as a biological scaffold for new materials such as metallic films, which have potential applications in the energy field.

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