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Trained Bacteria Cleans Up Pesticides

Can we get bugs to do our bidding? Emory chemist Justin Gallivan has moved science another step closer to that possibility. His lab reprogrammed an innocuous strain of the bacterium Escherichia coli to "seek and destroy" the molecules of an herbicide called atrazine.

"Rather than just altering a single gene and getting a cell to do one task, we can start thinking of a cell almost like a computer that we can reprogram to do a series of things," says Gallivan.

His lab’s latest findings were published in a recent issue of Nature Chemical Biology.

Gallivan is working at the forefront of an area known as synthetic biology. A major goal of this field is to reprogram bacteria to carry out complex tasks, such as synthesizing and delivering drugs, and tracking and cleaning up environmental

"The bacterium E. coli swims toward things it likes and away from things it doesn’t," Gallivan says. "It communicates with other cells. It synthesizes complicated compounds and replicates itself every 20 minutes. Put another way, E. coli tastes, thinks, talks, listens and makes things."

The program for all of these activities is packed into the genome of the bacterium, and is in part regulated by RNA switches, known as riboswitches. By hacking into the E. coli program and inserting a synthetic riboswitch, Gallivan's team reprogrammed the E. coli cell's chemical navigation system. The presence of atrazine flips the synthetic riboswitch, causing the bacterium to move toward high concentrations of the herbicide.

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