Researchers develop basic computing elements for bacteria

Jul 15, 2015

by Helen Knight

The “friendly” bacteria inside our digestive systems are being given an upgrade, which may one day allow them to be programmed to detect and ultimately treat diseases such as colon cancer and immune disorders.

In a paper published today in the journal Cell Systems, researchers at MIT unveil a series of sensors, memory switches, and circuits that can be encoded in the common human gut bacterium Bacteroides thetaiotaomicron.

These basic computing elements will allow the bacteria to sense, memorize, and respond to signals in the gut, with future applications that might include the early detection and treatment of inflammatory bowel disease or colon cancer.

Researchers have previously built genetic circuits inside model organisms such as E. coli. However, such strains are only found at low levels within the human gut, according to Timothy Lu, an associate professor of biological engineering and of electrical engineering and computer science, who led the research alongside Christopher Voigt, a professor of biological engineering at MIT.

“We wanted to work with strains like B. thetaiotaomicron that are present in many people in abundant levels, and can stably colonize the gut for long periods of time,” Lu says.

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2 comments on “Researchers develop basic computing elements for bacteria

  • This is quite astounding. The thing that makes me nervous, that once you introduce this variant it might not be that long before it lives in every human gut. If there is a problem, how do you recall it? Do you have a right to introduce such a beast into people without consent?

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  • Hi Roedy,
    Good question, I had the same thought. Another issue with Bacteria is some transfer genes laterally any genetic tinkering (I believe-someone with more knowledge in the area might want to correct me here) might potentially be transfered to other species of gut bacteria. I’ve often though much of the GMO stuff could be solved if they introduced a suicide gene or simply make the plant or animal sterile, probably too expensive to not be able to have self replication after the genetic modification. Still I hope they keep looking into all of this (carefully).

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