University of California San Francisco
Helen Diller Family Comprehensive Cancer Center

"Synthetic Biology Yields Bacteria That Take Pictures and Target Tumors

By Jeffrey Norris, UCSF Today | July 3, 2006

In the 1966 movie Fantastic Voyage, a submarine crew of medical scientists and their vessel are miniaturized with top-secret technology. They travel the bloodstream of another, full-sized scientist in a quest to vanquish a blood clot in his brain.

If you're willing to substitute radically modified bacteria for miniaturized humans - and scientific collegiality for secrecy - then science fiction is getting closer to reality.

Researchers at UCSF and at several other leading universities nationwide are engineering bugs to do things they never could do before - including traveling the bloodstream to reach disease targets. No miniaturized submarine crews are at risk, and if a few million bacteria bite the dust, you can always raise more.

Synthetic Biology Thinks Big
This emergent scientific field is known as synthetic biology. Goals range far beyond the single-gene manipulation usually associated with genetic engineering. The focus is on the development of cellular components - such as sensors and suites of genes - that can be swapped easily between organisms and assembled into unique "devices." These devices are engineered to perform useful and important tasks, typically within living microbes.

"The approach is similar to the design of robotic systems - except that it is being applied at a microscopic scale in living systems," says UCSF's Chris Voigt, PhD, a leading synthetic biologist.

For instance, bacteria have environmental sensors that react to stimuli, and integrated circuitry encoded in the genome that guides responses to stimuli. Voigt is creating sensors, linking them in circuits and inducing them to perform useful tasks in unique ways, often in response to variable cues from the surrounding microenvironment.

Possible broad applications for synthetic biology include:

  • the discovery of new treatments for various diseases

  • new manufacturing processes

  • green materials

  • new ways to clean up the environment

So far, Voigt's UCSF School of Pharmacy research team has retooled bacteria to display photographic images and to target tumors.

Read more at Jeffrey Norris, UCSF Today