Swarmbots are here to aid genetic engineering

1 Mar 2016

Interesting research in the US has produced something called ‘swarmbots’, engineered microbes that stay contained, never breaching out and contaminating the host’s environment.

Swarmbots could be a term you hear more of in the future. That’s because Duke University researchers have developed a way to control genetically-modified cells so as not to allow them survive outside of their strictly-controlled environment.

The way they work is by providing explicit protection in numbers, with any microbes seeking a better life away from the colony immediately killed off without the protective proteins provided for in the group.

Control, in theory

Future Human

What it means is explosions into an ecosystem can be controlled, in theory. To make the swarmbots, Duke’s Lingchong You and his colleagues engineered a particular strain of E. coli to produce a chemical called AHL.

Within the cell, they made it so that high enough concentrations of AHL could produce enough of an antidote to survive antibiotics. So, when the E. coli stuck together, it was fine.

This is how it works:

Proof of concept

This is all very proof of concept as, without the specific environment – and existence of antibiotics – it doesn’t really stay contained. However, it does provide new routes to research, with the possibilities extensive.

For example, it’s conceivable that technology like this could be used to implant a contained population of bacteria that could help the body respond to attack.

“Safety has always been a concern when modifying bacteria for medical applications because of the danger of uncontrolled proliferation,” said You.

“Other labs have addressed this issue by making cells rely on unnatural amino acids for survival or by introducing a ‘kill switch’ that is activated by some chemical,” You said.

“Ours is the first example that uses collective survival as a way of intrinsically realising this safeguard.”

The research features in Molecular Systems Biology.

Main image via Shutterstock

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic