[Tina Carvalho, University of Hawaii at Manoa/NIH Image Gallery]

Innovative Microbe Set to Revolutionize Synthetic Biology as it Outperforms E. coli in Protein Synthesis

Cornell University's new Vibrio natriegens microbe offers a cost-effective and scalable alternative to E. coli for synthetic biological experiments, paving the way for innovative pharmaceuticals and sustainable compounds
Biomanufacturing, Chemicals & Materials
Health & Medicine
February 13, 2024

In the verdant laboratories of Cornell University, a team of researchers, with the meticulousness of alchemists and the curiosity of explorers, have orchestrated a remarkable feat in the microbial world. They have unveiled a new version of a microbe, not just any microbe, but one poised to rival the venerable E. coli, a favorite tool in the biologist's toolkit due to its remarkable protein-synthesizing capabilities. This new microbial contender is set to revolutionize the way we approach synthetic biological experiments, offering a low-cost, scalable alternative.

Imagine, if you will, a scenario where a humble bacterium, Vibrio natriegens, acts not just as a biological entity but as a veritable photocopier in a test tube. This innovative microbe promises to aid laboratories in their quest to test protein variants crucial for the creation of pharmaceuticals, synthetic fuels, and sustainable compounds aimed at combating weeds or pests. What sets V. natriegens apart is its ability to function effectively without the need for costly incubators, shakers, or deep freezers, and it can be engineered within mere hours.

This groundbreaking research, published recently in PNAS Nexus, speaks to the simplicity and efficiency of this process. “It’s really easy to produce,” declares David Specht, the lead author and a postdoctoral researcher in the laboratory of Buz Barstow, an assistant professor of biological and environmental engineering.

In the realm of protein research, where the quest for medical cures and alternative fuels is ceaseless, researchers traditionally rely on plasmids—small DNA fragments acting as instruction manuals for creating proteins of interest. The standard procedure involves inserting these plasmids into E. coli cells to create multiple copies for testing various variants. However, this process has its drawbacks: E. coli, especially the modified strains used in these experiments, are fragile and expensive to maintain.

Barstow elucidates the challenges faced by molecular biologists, “As scientists, we don’t often know precisely what those regulatory or molecular sequences should be to achieve our goals.” This uncertainty necessitates testing a multitude of variants, and here, Vibrio natriegens shines, enabling researchers to scale up this process.

Specht further simplifies the essence of V. natriegens, “It’s so simple to make that someone with limited resources—like high school labs, home inventors, or startup biological businesses—can do it.”

Timothy Sheppard, a researcher part of this innovative team, draws a poetic parallel, comparing the ease of using V. natriegens in synthetic and molecular experiments to wielding a simple, centuries-old writing instrument: “We’ve found nature’s pencil for cloning and conducting synthetic biology,” he remarks.

The advantages of employing V. natriegens are manifold. It eschews the need for capital equipment purchases and thrives at room temperature. The cells derived from this microbe proliferate rapidly: a transformation initiated at 9 a.m. can yield visible colonies teeming with proteins by 5 p.m.

Barstow aptly summarizes the impact of this discovery, “The microbe is a radically simple solution to a hard problem.” In the intricate dance of science, where complexity often reigns supreme, the introduction of Vibrio natriegens stands as a testament to the elegance of simplicity, a beacon of hope for researchers and innovators alike, heralding a new era in the field of synthetic biology.

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