One major application could see the material being developed as a fabric with in-built living sensing. The team says the cellulose can be made to produce proteins that detect chemicals like metal and biological toxins and then change the material colour in response as a warning.
This research was led by a team of undergraduates from Imperial College London in the spare time between their courses, in the field of synthetic biology. This is where scientists are engineering cells into biological machines that can perform new pre-determined functions. The team in today's study are one of the first in the world to apply synthetic biology to change the way that materials are produced.
They have called their cell Komagataeibacter rhaeticus iGEM (K.rhaeticus). Michael Florea, who recently graduated from Imperial's Department of Life of Sciences, led this project as part of his undergraduate studies.
Florea said, “What makes this approach so promising is that we've shown that bacterial cellulose production can be genetically controlled, which means that we grow material with different shapes, patterns and sizes. We can also weave in other proteins and biomolecules, which has never been possible before.”
In the research, which has been published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the team describe the suite of DNA-encoded components with which they can engineer the K.rhaeticus cells to make them into mini-factories for producing customised bacterial cellulose. The re-engineered K.rhaeticus recognise synthetic DNA and promoters and can produce fluorescent proteins in the cells when they detect certain chemicals. By swapping in different DNA programs the same components can be used for turning cellulose production on and off.
The team is also in talks with representatives in defence, and the fashion and textiles industry about potential applications, the report said. (SH)
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