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20 January 2017

Electronic Genes Could Transform Medical Technology

Thanks to electronic genes, we could soon be plugging bacteria into devices

When it comes to technology, a bug is a rarely welcomed intruder that can cause untold problems to a device. But, thanks to the work of a group of United States-based researchers, that’s all about to change.

A team of synthetic biologists, eager to uncover new ways to connected organisms to electronics, have developed a method to control bacterial genes. One result of this experiment is that we are – hypothetically – one step closer to creating ‘living components’ for our electronic devices.

Why is this important? Well, William Bentley of the University of Maryland believes that they would be particularly valuable for devices that work inside the human body.

“If you want to discover what’s going on in the gastrointestinal tract or the oral cavity, if you can connect to electronics you have a way of interpreting what’s going on and you may be able to manipulate it,” he said.

One such example of how this might work in practice is that a device could use an organism inside the body to detect certain chemicals produced by harmful bacteria. When it recognises the chemical, it could secrete an antibiotic to protect the patient.

In order to manipulate specific genes to allow them to respond to electrical simulation, Bentley and his fellow researchers focused on redox molecules. These molecules are found in all cells and are naturally able to pass on electrons, oxidising in the process.

Alongside redox molecules, the bacteria E. coli was also a subject of the team’s investigation. Some components of E. coli respond to the oxidisation process and become reactive as a result.

To ensure an electrical input, electrodes were submerged into a specially created solution that contained bacteria. When the electrodes provided a positive charge, the redox molecules in the liquid became oxidised, setting off a chain reaction that triggered certain genetic mechanisms into action. When the electrode is negatively charged, the molecules reduce and the genes ‘turn off’.

The bacteria can also be engineered so that they can activate a specific gene that a researcher or doctor wants to target.

Unfortunately, like with many scientific breakthroughs, more research needs to be conducted to ensure its viability and safety.


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