Universities of Bristol and Hamburg make breakthrough in bacterial engineering


By Amelie Heimann, Second year, Biochemistry

As Bristol scientists crack the code for engineering bacteria in extreme environments, Amelie Heimann explains why it could be so important

Bacteria have the potential to help in medical and environmental settings, however, it has repeatedly proven difficult to construct bacteria capable of surviving outside of controlled laboratory environments. That’s why the Bristol team worked together with the University of Hamburg to find a solution.

Bristol researchers have recently developed bacteria that harbor an additional reserve of proteins that can be broken down in extreme environments. This is a huge breakthrough, as it could help bacteria survive in soil or in the human body where nutrient availability is variable and not as defined as under laboratory conditions. These bacteria can then be mobilized to fight disease or improve quality of life.

Bacteria can be enlisted to fight disease or improve quality of life | Unsplash / Adrian Lange

The system acts like a “biological battery” that the cell can use for continued growth and survival in a nutrient-poor environment.

To allow essential amino acids to be released in a nutrient-poor environment, researchers had to devise a way to break down the protein stores in bacteria. They based this on pre-existing methods of how bacteria break down protein, but the team targeted it specifically at these extra protein stores.

Short peptide tags can attach to proteins and act as a signal for its own destruction, whereby the amino acids that make up the protein are then released into the environment. In this research, the team focused on the SsrA peptide tag system, which has been extensively researched in E coli bacteria and the genetic sequences of the peptide tags are known.

The system acts in the same way as a “biological battery”

The Bristol and Hamburg researchers also found that the different sequences of these peptide tags can also alter the rate at which the protein is broken down. They therefore compared the effectiveness of two of these SsrA labels.

They did this by adding a fluorescent property to the specific protein they wanted to destroy and comparing the fluorescence levels with each respective tag. Lower levels of fluorescence would show that there would be reduced protein levels, indicating a more successful experiment.

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In addition to these experiments, the researchers also developed a mathematical model to know the parameters, such as the rate of degradation and the size of the optimal protein reserve for the bacteria.

Their findings represent a huge step forward in bacterial engineering research, and we hope that the insights gained from these experiments will help accelerate innovation in the field of synthetic biology.

Featured image: Unsplash / Elena Mozhvilo

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