Non-scientists generally think of “circadian clock” as a metaphoric term. There’s nothing literally ticking away inside the human body, helping align it to the regular cycle of day and night. But synthetic biologists from Harvard Medical School (HMS) and the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering have created something just that tangible: a transplantable, bioengineered 24-hour clock, which functioned by itself after being inserted into a bacterium that doesn’t typically have a circadian rhythm.
For synthetic biologists, the process used to identify and deploy these proteins is, by now, a relatively well-understood one. The “real genius” of Chen’s experiment, Silver reflected, was therefore in its specific implementation: building a system that would put these tools together in the right way, and provide a mechanism to prove that it had worked. The team created a fluorescent protein marker that would operate “downstream” of the oscillator. Over a three-day period, they observed it turn on and off on a regular, 24-hour cycle, proving that the rhythm had taken hold in the normally non-circadian E. coli.
Chen pointed to several possible medical uses, which would take advantage of the wide role that microbiomes play in human health. Most obviously, a system built from this research could help individuals whose body clocks have fallen out of sync with their environments. It could also aid in the treatment of obesity and glucose intolerance, which researchers have linked to out-of-sync circadian rhythms in gut bacteria. These synthetically engineered body clocks could also be used to help automate the delivery of drugs at specific times of day, and to control the action of microbes used in industrial processes.
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