Turning the lights on and off turns bacteria into real chemical factories

“All you need is lighting,” said José Avalos, assistant professor of chemical and

biological engineering at PrincetonUniversity and the Andlinger Center for Energy and Environment. "There are many potential benefits, one of which is the ability to easily tune and reverse the induction signal."

New work builds on previous researchAvalos and colleagues, described in Nature in 2018, in which they engineered yeast to produce chemicals in the presence or absence of light. E. coli, however, is more widely used by scientists and engineers than yeast.

Avalos and his colleagues recently created bacteriausing the absence of light to trigger reactions that lead to chemical formation or protein production. This allows researchers to slow down or stop the reaction by simply turning on the lights. Light also allows them to control where the reaction takes place. In one demonstration, scientists darkened only certain areas of a Petri dish containing bacteria with a tiger stencil, creating a fluorescent tiger print from the reaction of selectively activated bacteria. Light, unlike chemicals, is also relatively inexpensive and easier to use to activate bacteria.

Image Source: Princeton University

OptoLac, the new optogenetic - or light - method of Avalos and his colleagues, empowers scientists to harness the power of already existing technology with added precision and control.

E. coli is currently used for the industrial production of a wide range of commercial and specialty chemicals, from building blocks made of plastic and synthetic fibers to high quality chemicals such as pigments and fragrances. E. coli is also often used by scientists to better understand the basic principles of metabolism, biosynthetic pathways and more. The new technology may be important not only for biotechnology, but also for basic research, the author concludes.

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