By using bacterial amplifiers, the systems become more sensitive. "Because of the amplifier, bacterial biosensors can detect concentrations much lower than would have been possible otherwise. In a system designed to produce a particular molecule or chemical, much larger output levels can be generated," he said.
A specific application being investigated is the design of a system that enables nitrogen fixing bacteria to communicate with the root systems of corn plants.
According to Bhalerao, soybean fixes its own nitrogen by sending a message to a bacterium that encourages it to colonize in the plant's roots. Once the right environment has developed, the bacteria start fixing nitrogen for that plant. This results in soybeans being naturally high in nitrogen and a protein-rich food source.
"Why don't we teach corn how to do this?" Bhalerao said. "This would reduce the need for the application of petroleum-based fertilizers, which has huge implications for sustainable agriculture."
Synthetic biology is a fast-growing research area with a wide range of potential applications. Scientists are using this new technology to make biosensors sensitive to light, sensitive to uranium, sensitive to rust, etc. Proven concepts in various stages of development include using bacterial sensors to build bacterial photographic plates, assist with the nuclear mining of uranium, or detect unexploded landmines in the soil.
"These are just a few potential uses that capture the mind," Bhalerao said. "This type of technology allows us to think about interesting, novel solutions to major concerns, such as how we can feed more people, or how we can produce more drinking water.
"Synthetic biology is an entirely new discipline. To compare it with electronics, where it's drawing a lot of its ideas and terminology from, we are at the stage
|Contact: LeAnn Ormsby|
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign