Guest writer Ashley Juavinett offers her take on how technology may be used to manipulate biological processes.

Through Ashley Juavinett

The method we communicate with biological systems has greatly improved in the last ten years alone. With stem cells, we can now simulate illnesses, switch neurons on and off, and even alter a single gene. Technology to precisely regulate biological systems is being developed more and more for both fundamental research and treatments.

Escherichia coli (E. coli), a member of the bacterial genus that occasionally causes food poisoning, or at least specific strains of it, is one such example. Remarkably, much of this research is being conducted on such basic organisms. E. coli is a major model in biology, and its biological processes and behaviors are well understood. Synthetic genes with various functions, such as a genetic switch, a cell cycle monitor, or a timer for biological events, have been inserted into E. coli in recent years by researchers. According to a 2014 research, synthetic E. coli could even perceive and record events occurring in the mouse gut, suggesting that one day we may be able to employ these germs for detection and diagnosis. 

Other scientists are utilizing communities of organisms to explore input-output processes at the macroscale, building on recent developments in synthetic biology. Untangling the network connections between millions of E. coli is challenging because, as you might expect, comprehending a biological network in a single E. coli is already pretty challenging. However, we may make use of these "biomimetic" systems to comprehend how even simple living forms have astonishingly sophisticated behaviors by combining synthetic biology with large-scale investigations.

In a recent study from Virginia Tech, researchers created a system that could read the output of E. coli and use it to steer an automobile to different stimuli as an illustration of similar research. Simply enough, they suggested assembling a tiny microbiome from a population of genetically altered E. coli and attaching it to a remote-control automobile that would interpret the E. coli's activities. A change in the environment would cause reporter genes to express, which a "microchemostat" could then translate into a change in voltage, which would then be used to operate the robot host. The researchers were able to alter the microbiome's preferences for food by simulating the aforementioned genetic switch. The microbiome-guided robot operates with the switch in one configuration. 

This project's objective was to develop a method for investigating host-microbiome interactions and looking for distinctive, emergent characteristics of their biomimetic system. Despite being an in silico model, their design showed several interesting characteristics. The robot would frequently move in an interesting pattern where it would approach the meal slowly, hesitate, and then suddenly attack, which the scientists claim is akin to predatory behavior. Surprisingly, even extracting data from a colony of E. coli may imitate actions usually attributed to more complicated organisms.

We are ultimately closer to knowing how bacteria, such as the flora that inhabit our gut, impact our health and emotions by analyzing the interplay of the microbiome "brain" and its robot host in this way. A rising corpus of research has connected human illnesses including melancholy, autism, and obesity to our microbiomes; they may even be responsible for some behavioral features. There are studies demonstrating that probiotics implanted in mice reduce their stress levels, and there is proof that bacteria can be used to influence the fruit fly mating behavior (scary and remarkable at the same time!).

When we attempt to separate something, we discover that it is connected to everything else in the universe.

in 1911, John Muir

Technology frequently borrows ideas from nature to create quicker, more effective devices using concepts from biology or neurology. While we frequently alter nature, like in the case of genetically engineered creatures, for our own immediate needs, we may also utilize these alterations to investigate the computations behind intriguing behaviors. The 2015 bacterium robot study's authors state in their conclusion, "We expect [our] model system will have implications in fields ranging from synthetic biology and ecology to mobile robotics." Although E. coli won't be powering our automobiles any time soon, the calculations made by these tiny yet complex creatures may eventually allow us to move. 

Profile of a guest blogger

Ashley Juavinett is a Ph.D. candidate in neurosciences at UCSD, a Graduate Research Fellow with the NSF, and a future scientific journalist. Ashley is employing in vivo imaging while employed at the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California, to research the brain circuitry underpinning mouse visual perception. She presently shares leadership of the collaborative science writing organization NeuWrite San Diego (, and she also maintains a blog where she discusses society and neuroscience. Twitter account to follow: @ashleyjthinks