Illustration for article titled This microbe could become the off switch for biological machines

In the Victorian era people marveled at what could be done by mixing and matching mechanical parts like the wheel, the magnet, the lever, and the piston. Today we mix and match biological parts like the gene, the enzyme, and the organ. Take a look at a new biological part that gives a microbe an 'off' switch.


Pyrococcus furiosus is one of those microbes that grows best next to those super hot undersea sulfur jets in the ocean. It, and others like it, were isolated from sand collected near them and welcomed gratefully by industry, since they could withstand the incredibly hot temperatures which mark many endeavors in biotechnology and manufacturing. They produce biological or chemical products, while taking the heat.

Unfortunately, some enzymes are automatically destroyed when exposed to heat, while hyperthermophiles, microbes that thrive in temperatures around one hundred degrees centigrade, shut down at lower temperatures. Enter Caldicellulosiruptor bescii which chugs along at a comfortable seventy-eight degrees, and produces a low-temperature loving protein called lactate dehyrogenase. The gene that makes it was inserted into P. furiosus, and inserted in a specific place. P. furiosus has a cold shock response. When it is too cold, it shuts off some of its more intensive metabolic processes, while kicking bare survival ones into gear. In its DNA, a 'cold shock promoter' turns on the genes around itself when the temperature drops. Put a gene next to it, and it will only kick into gear when the microbe gets cold. By inserting the right gene in the right place, scientists have created a microbe that continues with its regular bioengineering functions at high temperatures, but will produce a specific protein as soon as the conditions are right. Life has become an engineering process. (Is that cool or unnerving?)


Top Image: NASA

Via mBio.

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