Biologists engineered insect-bacterial mutualism in ‘bucket list’ achievement

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A new paper in Current Biology authored by Crystal Su and other collaborators in the School of Biological Sciences describes the development of a novel, synthetic insect-bacterial symbiosis sustained through many insect generations by transovarial bacterial transmission.

Image credit: University of Utah

The symbiotic bacteria express a red fluorescent protein visible through the insect cuticle, facilitating the characterization of the mechanics of infection and transmission in insect tissues and cells. In addition, Su et. al.engineered the bacteria to modify their ability to synthesize aromatic amino acids used by the insect host to fuel cuticle strengthening. Correspondingly, insects maintaining bacteria that overproduce these nutrients exhibited stronger cuticles, signifying mutualistic function.

Establishing this synthetic symbiosis will facilitate detailed molecular genetic analysis of symbiotic interactions and presents a foundation for genetically modified symbionts in engineering insects that transmit diseases of medical and agricultural importance. The paper is titled “Rational engineering of a synthetic insect-bacterial mutualism.”

Broader context

SBS Professor and principal investigator Colin Dale said, “The work described in the paper was catalyzed and conducted by Crystal Su, a courageous and dedicated graduate student in SBS, who took on this very high risk and transformative project and pushed through numerous roadblocks, doggedly refusing to take no for an answer.”

Su engaged the GolicRog and Gagnon labs in SBS to assist with specialist techniques, highlighting the utility of interdisciplinary science and the breadth of talent and collaborative spirit that exists in the school.

Dale views Su’s work as a “bucket list” accomplishment, “something I dreamed about while playing cricket games at Bristol University Vet School during my Ph.D. While Crystal dedicated six years of her life to bring this novel new biology to life, it’s also the product of foundational work by SBS graduate students in the decade prior, involving the identification, characterization, culture and development of genetic tools for proto-symbionts free-living bacteria that can establish stable, maternally transmitted associations with insects.”

Synthetic biology

Synthetic Biology focuses on utilizing engineering approaches to design and fabricate organisms (including associations and communities) that do not exist in the natural world. It can yield practical solutions for many problems in medicine, agriculture, materials and environmental sciences. 

In addition, it can be used to investigate the functions of natural systems, via replication and manipulation, as highlighted in the Su et al. paper. To understand its potential, it is useful to think of the contribution of synthetic approaches to other disciplines in science, most notably in chemistry, said Dale who also serves as section head of Genetics and Evolution in SBS.

Source: Utah State University

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