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Glowing plants, shining meat and self-doctoring cows – organisms as biosensors

Just when you thought you have seen everything in the way of genetic manipulation of farm plants and animals, science takes another giant leap forward. The latest jump is in using living cells and organisms as biosensors that can detect any number of things but are most often used to detect environmental threats and toxins. This research is leading to the development of entire organisms that can glow or change colors to communicate threatening conditions to farmers and consumers alike. They can also lead to self-doctoring animals that can sense disease and self-treat it too.

This involves much more work than simply making changes to DNA. This work entails using living cells as computing devices. It is the new frontier and is frequently referred to as biohacking as it mimics writing computer code to produce a new computing function.

Bill Gates once told Wired magazine that if he were just starting out now, he would become a biohacker rather than a computer hacker because biohacking is the future of computing. If you want to learn more about biohacking, you might want to read my earlier posts on the topic, starting with this one.

But back to today’s enormous breakthrough in the development of biosensors.

A team of researchers at the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University and Harvard Medical School (HMS) led by George Church, Ph.D., successfully engineered Arabidopsis plants to act as multicellular botanical biosensors. Yeah, that’s a mouthful of big words. Put more simply, this common flowering plant can now recognize the presence of the drug digoxin and emit light as a signal. In other words, it glows when it senses as little as a single molecule of that drug.

It’s not that the researchers are desperately seeking stashes of the drug in fields or flower beds. Dioxin is simply the drug they chose for the experiment. The plants can be engineered to detect a lot of different things of more importance to farmers such as the early presence of pests that can annihilate an entire crop.

"Biosensors that can tell you about their environment are extremely useful for a broad range of applications," said Church, the research team leader, in a statement to the press. "You can imagine if they were used in agricultural plants, they can tell you about the condition of the soil, the presence of toxins or pests that are bothering them."

It's very handy that farmers can look across a field and tell from which plants are glowing and in what color exactly what pest is intruding and exactly where they are in the field, for example.

“Using our strategy, the Arabidopsis plants we engineered exhibited a 50-fold increase in luminescence in the presence of digoxin -- very easily visualized -- which could inspire exciting future applications involving trees or plants that detect harmful environmental pollutants or toxins and give off a visible indicator," said Dan Mandell, Ph.D., the study's co-first author and a Wyss Institute Technology Development Fellow and Postdoctoral Research Fellow at HMS in that same statement to the press announcing the breakthrough.

The researchers are currently at work trying to turn livestock into biosensors too. These could signal even a slight presence of disease or toxins. Meat delivered to a grocery store or restaurant could also glow if it’s spoiled thereby warning consumers. The possibilities are endless.

But this new class of biosensors can go beyond alerting farmers to problems in the field. They can also trigger automatic solutions. Yes, we’re talking about an animal whose new biosensing capabilities can detect an itch, inflammation, or budding infection – and also trigger the secretion of an appropriate chemical to treat it.

Uh huh. That would be self-doctoring cows, fowl, goats and pigs!

"These new reprogramming capabilities developed by the Church team open up an entirely new realm where ordinary organisms can be transformed into extraordinary living cellular devices that can sense specific signals and produce appropriate responses, whether its enhancing production of biofuels or secreting a therapeutic when the cells sense inflammation or infection,” said Wyss Institute Founding Director Donald Ingber, M.D., Ph.D., who is the Judah Folkman Professor of Vascular Biology at HMS and the Vascular Biology Program at Boston Children's Hospital, as well as Professor of Bioengineering at the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.

If you are as fascinated as I am with synthetic biology engineering (a fancy word for biohacking), check out this MIT video giving an overview of this emerging field. In any case, there’s more work to be done but the future of farming has never looked brighter – all fluorescent glow!

Glowing plants, shining meat and self-doctoring cows – organisms as biosensors

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