E. Coli: Mankind's Microscopic Minions


E. coli, the infamous bacteria that haunt America’s

undercooked meat (and veggies), are making news again—but this time they’re on

our side.  

The same Escherichia coli bacteria that periodically turns up in our food supply and makes us sick — in 1993 it killed 4 and

sickened 600 Jack in the Box patrons — can help rid us of hazardous

chemicals. All it needs is a little genetic reprogramming.

In a study published online this week in Nature Chemical Biology, researchers reprogrammed the lethal bacteria to break down a dangerous

herbicide called atrazine (makes me feel lazy — I have trouble reprogramming a TiVo).


they taught the bacteria to ‘like’ atrazine and to swim toward it. Next, they altered E. coli DNA so the bugs could

eat atrazine and break it down, rendering the chemical harmless.

Atrazine is a dangerous herbicide widely used in the U.S. that

sometimes pollutes freshwater supplies.

But it's just one of a constellation of potentially hazardous chemicals that we could stand to clean up from our water supply. With a little coaxing, E. coli could feast on all sorts of pollutants.

This study is part of the burgeoning field of synthetic biology — a field that promises no less than a revolution in how we understand the lowest common denominator of life on Earth: the cell. The goal of synthetic biology

is to get cells to perform complex tasks, like a microscopic flea circus.


instead of fleas on trapeze, you get bacteria that synthesize molecules,

deliver drugs, and clean up the environment. The researchers think this study

will lead to more intricate microorganism training, including more pollution-eating


As scientists begin to understand organisms at a molecular

level, they can tweak a bit of DNA here or there, and suddenly a dangerous microbe is retooled into a powerful environmental ally — the power of synthetic biology becomes clear. It marks a shift from science

that studies an organism to science that wields an organism.

Image: New Scientist

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