UW-Madison: Engineers create custom tuning knobs to turn off any gene

CONTACT: Brian Pfleger, 608-890-1940, [email protected]

MADISON – Factory managers can improve productivity by telling workers to speed up, slow down or stop doing tangential tasks while assembling widgets. Unfortunately for synthetic biologists attempting to produce pharmaceuticals, microbes don’t respond to direction like human personnel.

But now, an advance by University of Wisconsin-Madison engineers allows scientists to fine-tune biological functions in their bacterial employees.

Synthetic biology has progressed by leaps and bounds since researchers first induced E. coli bacteria to make human insulin in the 1970s. Today, biological engineers coax microorganisms to perform numerous complex chemistries, such as breaking down plant material for biofuels. However, scientists still rely on a limited complement of components to control their synthetic circuits.

“We were frustrated because synthetic biology is littered with examples of artificial factors that can turn on and turn off gene expression under different conditions, but they only work for certain genes,” says Brian Pfleger, a UW-Madison associate professor of chemical and biological engineering.

Pfleger’s group developed a way to turn off almost any gene in E. coli. Their approach, published Feb. 8 in the advance online edition of the journal Nature Chemical Biology, borrowed a trick from nature to achieve human goals.

Read more at http://news.wisc.edu/uw-madison-engineers-create-custom-tuning-knobs-to-turn-off-any-gene/