The light touch of synthetic biology

05 November 2015| by Helen Stewart-Miller

With the discovery that cells can influence each other’s behaviour rather than operating in isolation came a number of exciting new possibilities for industry and medicine. Researchers in synthetic biology have been working to create multicellular ‘machines’ that talk to each other in the hope of utilising them for a wide range of applications – perhaps even a new class of smart drug to target cancer. At its simplest, such multicellular interaction may involve two cell populations that tell each other to fluoresce, and then to switch off again. 

Such an example was developed at Rice University in Houston where researchers created a multicellular system to encourage two populations of E. coli to communicate with each other. One cell type expressed an ‘activator’ signal for the cells to fluoresce. The second population responded by expressing a ‘repressor’ signal to turn off the original activator. This oscillating fluorescence occurred only when the two strains where cultured together. The researchers remarked that, “The ability to program population-level dynamics through genetic engineering of multiple cooperative strains, points the way toward engineering complex synthetic tissues and organs with multiple cell types.”

The applications of multicellular synthetic biology

Multicellular synthetic biology has many potential applications in medicine, with cancer being a prime target. In theory, it may be possible that engineered cells can detect whether they are located next to a tumour – and to release a drug if they are.  

One of the first research goals is managing the microbiome – the bacteria that live in the gut. Researchers have been developing engineered cells that can patrol the gut to identify, report on and attack harmful microorganisms. Once the engineered bacteria detect inflammation, they would be triggered to change colour and pass out of the body, allowing doctors to easily identify issues based on the colour of a stool sample. If these engineered cells could communicate with each other, they could become even better at diagnosis and treatment.

Image: Vshivkova/

Synthetic multicellular systems in industry

In an industrial setting, unicellular microbial systems already have a number of applications – in carefully managed fermentation vats producing chemicals and pharmaceuticals, for example. The collective nature of a cell population makes it more ‘aware of the surroundings’ than individual cells alone. Therefore, it’s possible that multicellular versions of some of the single cell systems that are currently in use could continue to work efficiently even if the conditions began to alter.

Intercellular communication offers vast potential for a wide range of applications in both industry and medicine. We look forward to seeing these develop into more ‘real world’ solutions.

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