MIT researchers have developed a toolkit that can be used to “program” a common bacterium in the body, not unlike you would program a computer—making it useful in detecting and treating certain medical conditions.
The team chose a common bacterium called Bacteroides thetaiotaomicron, which can be found in abundance in many people’s digestive tracts. Inserting sensors, memory switches, and circuits into the bacteria allows it to sense, memorize, and respond to signals in the gut. Their work is described in a new paper published in the journal Cell Systems.
“If you’re thinking of making a therapy, it’s going to be useful to work in an organism that’s there in the gut in large numbers,” Timothy Lu ’03, MNG ’03, PhD ’08 told the LA Times. Lu is the senior author of the study and an assistant professor of biological engineering and of electrical engineering and computer science at MIT.
This is not the first time scientists have genetically altered bacteria. Previously, researchers have used altered E. coli and Listeria to deliver cancer medication and treat obesity. The researchers selected B. thetaiotaomicron for this project due to its presence in many people, and for its ability to stably colonize in the gut for long periods of time.
So far, the researchers have successfully tested the microbes in mice. Further testing and refinements of the bacteria’s sensors are needed before they are tested in humans. Ultimately, Lu hopes to expand this genetic toolkit to detect other conditions such as inflammation, bleeding, and cancer.