SciWorks Radio is a production of 88.5 WFDD and SciWorks, the Science Center and Environmental Park of Forsyth County, located in Winston-Salem. Follow Shawn on Twitter @SCIFitz.
Here's a familiar story: a well-meaning, but slightly unhinged scientist creates genetically-modified bacteria. Even though his state-of-the-art facility is in a concrete-reinforced bunker far beneath the core of an active volcano, the strain escapes and destroys humanity in a painful and graphic manner, fit for a Hollywood blockbuster.
So far, this has been held up in the realm of fiction. But honestly, what is keeping a genetically-altered super-villain bug from escaping Duke University's synthetic biology labs?
I spoke with Dr. Lingchong You, Associate Professor of Engineering at Duke University. He is the lead investigator creating genetically altered “swarmbots” that can only survive in a swarm of their own kind.
"Our objective is to engineer cells to prevent uncontrolled proliferation. So if that number is high, they'll say 'We're good. We're in the right environment.' If they escape confinement, they'll say 'I'm all by myself, I'm in the wrong place.' The cells will have a way not to operate beyond the application context they're intended for; to commit suicide."
One obvious use for this is to keep genetically-modified bacteria contained, without a bunker… or a volcano. But these cells might one day be programmed to sense the chemicals around them.
Imagine sending a swarm of bacteria into a human body that will release medicine only to a selected disease, and then die when that disease is gone.
"What we are hoping is to introduce different kinds of genes that will allow the bacteria, for example, to sense their environment and to release proteins or other chemicals. One of the long-term goals is to target pathogenic bacteria. Not necessarily delivering antibiotics, but delivering other types of proteins or chemicals that will inhibit the survival of the pathogenic bacteria."
According to Dr. You, this could be the work-around needed to defeat antibiotic resistant superbugs.
But how is this done? Well, there's an app for that… sort of.
"You can think of every cell as a very tiny computer; it has its own operating system which is encoded in its genome. So the way we program cells is to introduce a small piece of DNA into the cells. This is kind of like the app you introduce into a cell phone. This will encode a few proteins that will interact with each other; they will synthesize chemicals and do something. These proteins will then allow the cells either to survive or to talk to each other or to form patterns."
Dr. You's “app store” is growing. There's more that can be done with this technique.
"We're programming cells to communicate with each other to produce a chemical. In space, the chemical can reach every cell. The cells will figure out where they are. In the right place, they will produce one protein. In another place, they'll produce another protein, in a way that we can predict.
Now you have the cells. They know how to form the patterns. It's almost like 3D printing, using cells. They carry all their instructions. You don't need to tell them what to do. They know where they are, they know they're in the right place to form the patterns. It's like humans; we're not printed. The cells know their places!
One rationale of the whole field of synthetic biology is to develop a basic understanding of biology by building. If we cannot build something, chances are we don't fully understand what's going on. Think about all the human beings; we come in all different weights, heights. But the size of, for example, my head as related to my body size is roughly a constant across the population.
So in our case, that provides a model system for us to see, 'Oh, there's our living cells.They form patterns.' In this particular case, we know exactly what to put into the cells, we know how to manipulate their interactions, so, what are the mechanisms?"
This Time Round, the theme music for SciWorks Radio, appears as a generous contribution by the band Storyman and courtesy of UFOmusic.com.