UC San Diego bioengineers have created the first stable, fast and programmable genetic clock that reliably keeps time by the blinking of fluorescent proteins inside E. coli cells. The clock’s blink rate changes when the temperature, energy source or other environmental conditions change, a fact that could lead to new kinds of sensors that convey information about the environment through the blinking rate. One next step is to synchronize the clocks within large numbers of E. coli cells so that all the cells in a test tube would blink in unison. “This would start to look a lot like the makings of a fascinating environmental sensor,” said Jeff Hasty, a UC San Diego bioengineering professor and senior author on the Nature paper. Researchers in his lab have also developed sophisticated microfluidic systems capable of controlling environmental conditions of their E. coli cells with great precision. This enables the bioengineers to track exactly what environmental conditions affect their clocks’ blink rates. – sd
One of the great themes of our time is “hacking biology” and I think we are just seeing the beginnings of what is possible. If we can survive the environmental and geopolitical challenges we will face over the next 100 years, the advances will be jaw dropping. I hope my jaw is around to enjoy it.