Harvard University researchers have pioneered a method to produce dramatically larger amounts of chemicals from genetically engineered bacteria.
Their report, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, detailed how scientists engineered the common E. coli bacteria to produce desirable chemicals at an output 30 times greater and a rate 1,000 times faster than previously possible.
Researchers modified the bacteria's DNA so that antibiotic-resistant genes would be activated by the desirable chemical, then used an antibiotic to ensure only the cells producing the highest levels of that chemical would reproduce — a step that eliminates the current need to monitor the cells for efficiency.
"This is a major direction of growth in synthetic biology, where the focus has mostly been on one-off experiments until this point," said George Church, senior author of the study and a Harvard geneticist.
The research indicates scientists can use metabolic engineering to create almost any chemical from any type of bacteria, and that such genetic modification could provide the bulk of the world's chemical production in the future.
Donald Ingber, founding director of Harvard's Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering, said the research could substantially impact pharmaceutical, chemical and energy production.
"By increasing the production output by such a huge factor, we would not only be improving current chemical production but could also make economical production of many new chemicals attainable," Ingber said.