DNA Factory

September 7th, 2005 by dstmartin
 

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One of the things engineers do is design things. Then they redesign them. Some engineers are redesigning bacteria. We’ll see why, today on Engineering Works!

You don’t usually hear engineer and bacteria in the same sentence. But special bacteria are the target of some chemical engineers’ design skills. If you’ve been keeping track of the exploding field of bio-technology, it makes perfect sense. Here’s why.

Biotechnology changes the way organisms work by modifying their DNA. Bacteria with modified DNA can be turned into factories. They make all kinds of important stuff, from antibiotics to anti-cancer drugs. Pretty neat. But there’s a problem: many bacteria factories wear out pretty quickly. One bacterium produces the important antibiotic erythromycin. But it stops after one day. Another bacterium keeps turning out erythromycin for five days. Figuring out the difference is important.

Chemical engineers are using a nifty tool called a DNA microarray to figure it out. DNA microarrays are computer chips that track what each of the bacterium’s genes is doing. This is important. Even a bacterium has lots of genes, and sometimes a change in one or two can make a big difference. The microarray helps engineers see which gene is doing what. If they can see that, they can figure out what they need to change so the bacterium will do what they need it to. Like make more antibiotic.

Our genes are working fine, thank you. But we’re still out of time.

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