Synthetic biology, an emerging and fascinating field at the crossroads of natural and technical science, once served only as fodder for sci-fi films. And while it’s doubtful that scientists are working on the next Frankenstein, the field has since progressed rapidly: Researchers are now designing and manipulating biological molecules, engineering life forms to do anything from delivering chemicals to producing biofuels.
Most recently, a lab at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) engineered Salmonella, a common pathogenic bacterium often associated with food poisoning, to fight cancer. It sounds counterintuitive, since we usually think of Salmonella as dangerous, but the magic of it lies in the science behind the bacteria’s mode of action.
The researchers used the bacteria to produce and transport a confirmed anti-cancer chemical, Haemolysin E, to cancerous cells. Haemolysin E destroys cancer cells, and mammalian cells in general, by creating pores in the cells to cause them to lyse, or rupture and release their cellular contents. Since the bacteria release the chemical directly to the cancer site, this helps prevent the toxin from spreading to healthy cells. The researchers programmed Salmonella to produce Haemolysin E by inserting a plasmid, or a small piece of circular DNA, with the Haemolysin E gene into the bacterial DNA. The bacteria could then produce the toxin independently and at sufficient quantities.