BioBricking and the Future of Synthetic Biology

Landmines are and have been used in modern warfare extensively, as a way to injure or kill the enemy without having to get close to them. However, once the war is over, the landmines remain hidden in the ground, waiting to be detonated. Roughly 110 million landmines are still active in over seventy countries. Every month, 800 people are killed by landmine explosions and 1200 are seriously injured. A large majority of these people are civilians, especially children (New Internationalist Magazine). An effective and inexpensive method of removing landmines has not been found yet, until now.

Recently, scientists at the University of Edinburgh have developed a novel method for the safe and efficient removal of these mines: glowing green bacteria. Dr. Alistair Elfick engineered bacteria that glow green when it contacts chemicals from landmines. The bacteria can be dissolved in solution and sprayed from airplanes onto large areas of land. After two hours, the places where landmines can be found glow green.

The bacteria are generated through a process known as BioBricking. Synthetic biologists use this process to create new forms of organisms with a specific purpose. DNA coding for a specific function or trait are incorporated into plasmids and injected into the DNA of viable organisms, such as E. coli. Each BioBrick section of DNA can be combined with other BioBrick sections and code for more advanced functions through the action of restriction enzymes on restriction sites surrounding each DNA section. BioBrick vectors begin with a basic vector that can be transformed into what the scientist wants. Three BioBrick parts exist, which lead to the various levels of functioning for which they code. “Parts” are defined as the foundation that encode for basic functions like a specific protein or transcription factor. “Devices” are sets of parts that code for higher functions. The BioBrick vector that codes for a green luminescence when the bacteria are exposed to a certain chemical from a landmine is considered a “device.” “Systems” are compilations of “devices” that encode for the highest functions that have been generated using the BioBricking technique.

One prestigious undergraduate competition called iGEM (International Genetically Engineered Machines) deals with synthetic biology. The website describes the competition in the following terms: “Student teams are given a kit of biological parts at the beginning of the summer from the Registry of Standard Biological Parts. Working at their own schools over the summer, they use these parts and new parts of their own design to build biological systems and operate them in living cells.” Student groups from all over the world compete in various categories, with one overall winner. Some category examples are “Best Manufacturing Product” and “Best Health or Medicine Product.” In 2008, the winner of the BioBrick Trophy came from the University of Slovenia and had a project dealing with Heliobacter pylori and a designer vaccine against it. They developed two separate immunobricks, one that modified the flagellum of the bacteria so that they were recognized by the immune system and another that linked the bacteria to Toll-like receptors. In 2009, a team from Heidelberg University defined the field of synthetic mammalian biology and developed a BioBrick library comprised of mammalian cells that can be used in BioBrick research. They focused on gene regulation and synthetic gene promoters in these cells. They also performed bioinformatical studies which predict what each BioBrick promoter would do in vivo. For their product, Heidelberg was first runner up and selected as the best new standard. The number of entries for the iGEM competition has grown from about fifty in 2004 to roughly 1400 in 2009.

Clearly, the process of BioBricking can be used for several types of research. Most groups look at adding DNA sections that serve a specific medical function, as in the case of the undergraduate students from the University of Slovenia and their vaccines for H. pylori. A group of students from Heidelberg University advanced the science of synthetic biology by developing a library of mammalian cell gene promoters. However, this process can also be used for more social reasons. Researchers at the University of Edinburgh have developed E. coli bacteria that glow green when exposed to chemicals from landmines, hence saving the lives of thousands of people all over the world once this product becomes available for use.

Primary Source

Shetty et al. “Engineering BioBrick vectors from BioBrick parts.” Journal of Biological Engineering. 208, 2:5.

Websites Used


~ by jessicakendziorski on December 5, 2009.

8 Responses to “BioBricking and the Future of Synthetic Biology”

  1. Jessica,

    I really liked your blog. It was a fascinating topic, and I liked how you tied in the student competition. It is incredible what science can do, and your blog got me excited about science all over again. there was one thing I was curious about, the article about the glowing green bacteria from University of Edinburgh said they currently have no plans to make it commercial, I am curious as to why they wouldn’t want to do that. I am also interested in the bacteria they used. I wonder what its life span is, and how long would the land mines grow green? Additionally, I am curious what type of bacteria was used in the experiment. I wish that had been included in the article.

  2. I’m not sure if I am convinced that spraying these bacteria over large sections of ground is harmless to the environment. Introducing new species to an ecosystem should be done in a cautious manner, especially when introducing new bacteria that have been built for specific purposes. Oftentimes effects of introduced species are not seen for many, many years after the initial introduction. I agree with Jamie that it would have been nice if the bacteria had been described in further detail as well as any experiments that had determined the effect the bacteria had on their environment.

  3. I don’t think they want to make it commercially available yet due to what Kasey said. I’m not sure they’ve fully tested the safety of the bacteria. I couldn’t find exactly into what bacteria the DNA was inserted, but I’m assuming E. coli. As long as there is an energy source, the bacteria can survive. Also, as long as the bacteria is exposed to chemicals from the landmines, they will continue to glow green. These landmines have been in the ground for up to 50 years (most only 1-5 years though) and are still emitting chemicals.

    I totally agree with Kasey about the safety of introducing a foreign species into an environment, especially if the main way to spread this product is to drop it from airplanes. I would have liked to see if any experiments had been done on this topic as well.

  4. One advantage I see to using these engineered bacteria is that at the same time they are being cultured, the same lab could also synthesize appropriate countermeasures in case of an epidemic concerning diseases associated with these unique bacteria cultures. As notes in previous posts as well though, the areas in which these landmines exist are already most likely more impoverished parts of the world, and as a result if some type of infection were to ensue, those people would probably be less likely to be able to afford any types of appropriate treatment, let alone any novel drugs use to specifically combat this man-made bacteria. The utility of this work would have to come down to some serious balancing between the pros and cons of whether or not risking some type of novel epidemic would outweigh the 800 lives currently lost every month. It is horrible to boil people’s lives down to statistics and ratios, but unfortunately it is one of if not the only useful way of analyzing such matters.

  5. My question is what chemical on the landmine specifically would the synthetic bacteria recognize? It’s my understanding that most landmines are contained within a metal casing of some type. It would be interesting to see how the bacteria would distinguish a landmine from a broken down car or a scrap piece of metal in the dirt. My next question is more of a hypothetical one along the lines of Brad’s response. Landmines are a huge problem especially since America, the largest military power in the world, reserves the right to make and implement landmines. We are one of the only “developed” nations that still uses them. Which is more important? should we find the landmines and remove them, or should we not introduce a new species because of harmful effects on the environment? This is a serious ethical dilemma, but one that will need to be solved sometime in the near future. Personally, I think the landmines are a bigger problem than a POTENTIALLY invasive species.

  6. In response to Ben’s first question, I again couldn’t find any information on what the chemical was that the bacteria recognized. This information, as well as the type of bacteria, are probably under patent by the researchers.

    I completely agree that this is a serious ethical issue that needs to be addressed, concerning saving the lives of people versus introducing a potentially invasive species into an environment. If there was some way to contain the bacteria, that may help. It’s a very touchy subject that I think the authorities and science experts of the various countries where landmines are found need to decide for themselves.

  7. I don’t want to sound ignorant here, and forgive my lack of collegiate biology background – by why do we need to have living organisms for luminescence? Can’t just a simple chemical reaction make pretty colors? Whatever is in the bacteria that reacts to the landmine chemicals could probably just be isolated down to some non-living reaction, right?

    I could use some clarification here 😛

  8. Jessica –

    You should take a look at the blog I just posted – its sort of the opposite (“bio-unbricking,” if you will), by which I mean scientists are looking at ways to engineer a non-harmful HIV virus that could compete with the wild-type and hopefully eliminate it. I imagine that these two projects could go hand in hand. A focus of my article is the evolutionary/ecological advantage to modification. For example, the modified HIV would be more fit because it does less harm to its host. Perhaps these engineered organisms could be made targets of naturally prevalent predators? Nearly everything is teeming with bacteria and other microscopic organisms – if we’re going to the trouble of designing these bacteria, we should be able to make them ecologically weak while still accomplishing their purpose.

    Also, another idea. Could these bacteria be used to make agricultural fertilizers that are long term? Currently fertilizers need to be applied fairly often (at least once per crop). Perhaps we could design something that either lives in our crops or soil that is able to provide long term fuel (such as phosphorous or nitrogen recycling). Hmmm…

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