Bizarro Biology

June 11, 2010

Rheanna Sand

Riboswitch | Science in Seconds Blog by Rheanna Sand

Chemistry and biology are becoming one and the same. More than that, they seem to be eating each other, then turning inside out and folding in on each other once again.

A paper published in Nature Chemical Biology reports reprogramming E. coli to seek and destroy a herbicide called atrazine. Atrazine is banned in the European Union for its teratogenic, or birth-defect causing effects on amphibians, and for its general toxicity to humans. These researchers gave E. coli the ability to find atrazine and break it down with enzymes it didn't have before.

To reprogram the cells, the researchers used tiny pieces of RNA called riboswitches. Riboswitches are relatively easy to produce in large numbers, and so the researchers could select for the exact qualities they wanted. This technique could be used to engineer bacteria that would break down almost any target - perhaps Louisiana crude? - but they would also require oxygen which, in an ocean, could create dead zones.

Another group published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society successfully created antibodies made entirely of plastic, and they actually protected the livers of mice injected with a bee venom called mellitin.

Mellitin | Science in Seconds Blog by Rheanna Sand

I know I recently expressed disdain for plastics, but this is different. These are nanoplastics...tiny molds that recognize foreign particles, or antigens, and act nearly as well as an antibody produced by the animal's own immune system. There are inherent risks involved, of course. Mainly, causing a fatal allergic reaction, or glomming of random proteins onto the synthetic antibody, rendering it useless. In this study, neither of those outcomes occurred.

So… bacteria which seek and destroy chemical herbicides, and tiny plastics that help an animal fend off infection. Biology and chemistry are truly melding into one magnificent beast before our eyes.


DOI: 10.1038/nchembio.369
DOI: 10.1021/ja102148f



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