Microbes Genetically Engineered To Grow In The Dark

A photosynthetic bacteria that can survive without light? What…? A strain of photosynthetic cyanobacteria has been genetically manipulated by researchers at the University of California – Davis and is now able to grow without the presence of light.

Image Credit: Cyanobacteria via Wikimedia Commons
Image Credit: Cyanobacteria via Wikimedia Commons

“In this work, we used synthetic biology approaches to probe and rewire photoautotrophic (exclusively relying on carbon dioxide and light energy for growth) cyanobacterial metabolism for the ability to grow without light energy,” says Jordan McEwen, the lead researcher on the study. McEwen is a member of Shota Atsumi’s lab at the university, the researchers there are primarily focused on the development of biofuels via synthetic organisms.

The cyanobacterium strain in question — Synechococcus elongatus strain PCC 7942 — has been characterized by previous work as a model photoautotroph. Previous work done by Atsumi’s lab “has engineered this organism to recycle carbon dioxide into a variety of biofuels and valuable chemicals in the presence of light. Any cost-effective, cyanobacterial biofuel production scheme would use natural lighting conditions, limiting how much biofuel could be produced in a 24-hour period.”

“To overcome this constraint, we installed foreign genes into S. elongatus to allow this cyanobacterium to grow and generate biofuels in diurnal (light or dark) conditions,” says McEwen. “With recent, increased focus on cyanobacteria-based industrial applications, this advancement is desirable for more efficient, economical and controllable bioproduction systems.”

Research such as this always begs the question — is this a good idea? Altering any natural ecosystems is always a questionable affair, but on the microbial scale man-made alterations could be particularly unpredictable.

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