Tuesday, June 3, 2008

E coli: not just for health scares

Today MSR had Carl Zimmer visiting to give a talk on his latest book Microcosm: E coli and the New Science of Life, following a pre-talk backyard burger grilling (not really). I watched over the live-streaming video. Zimmer addressed how E coli has been used in the past for scientific experiments, and some new directions that microbiology is taking.

E coli has been used in bioengineering to make synthetic insulin, jet fuel, and cancer treatments, to name a few. Some students even found a way to make it "take pictures". E coli has around 2,000 "core" genes, while the entire genome (all strains of E coli) has nearly 10,000 that have been found so far (for comparison, humans have 30,000). Some scientists believe that the "bare minimum" of genes necessary for its survival is around 200. Venter and company have already been working with a different smaller-genomed species, and "keep knocking out genes, to see if it still lives." Their count is down to 350. Potential experiments are to take these O(100) genes and begin adding more to create "new life" specialized for some purposes, which is very futuristic-sounding.

Other interesting experiments involve finding bacteria that are already suited for human needs. For instance, a teenager in Canada already isolated bacteria that eat plastic bags. These sorts of experiments could solve a lot of problems. I wonder if there are bacteria that turn lead into gold. :-)

1 comment:

Lisa said...
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