The team engineered the bacteria by adding what synthetic biologists call “genetic circuits”—systems of genetic parts, logically compiled to make the bacteria behave in a desired way.
The engineered bacteria sensed the presence of the researchers’ chosen input—ranging from temperature to sugar molecules to heavy metals such as mercury and copper—and responded by changing their swarming ability, which visibly changed the output pattern.
Using AI to decode swarming pattern
Working with Andrew Laine, Percy K. and Vida L. W. Hudson Professor of Biomedical Engineering and a DSI member and Jia Guo, assistant professor of neurobiology (in psychiatry) at the Columbia University Irving Medical Center the researchers then applied deep learning–a state-of-the-art AI technique–to decode the environment from the pattern, in the same way scientists look at the rings in a tree trunk to understand the history of its environment.
They used models that can classify patterns holistically to predict, for example, sugar concentration in a sample, and models that can delineate or “segment” edges within a pattern to predict, for example, the number of times the temperature changed while the colony grew.
An advantage of working with P. mirabilis is that, compared to many of the typical engineered bacterial patterns, the native P. mirabilis pattern is visible to the naked eye without costly visualization technology and forms on a durable, easy-to-work-with solid agar medium.
These properties increase the potential to apply the system as a sensor readout in various settings. Using deep learning to interpret the patterns can enable researchers to extract information about input molecule concentrations from even complex patterns.
“Our goal is to develop this system as a low-cost detection and recording system for conditions such as pollutants and toxic compounds in the environment,” said Anjali Doshi, the study’s lead author and a recent PhD graduate from Danino’s lab.
“To our knowledge, this work is the first study where synthetic biologists have engineered a naturally pattern-forming bacterial species to modify its native swarming ability and function as a sensor.”
New approach will advance biotechnology
Such work can help researchers better understand how the native patterns form, and beyond that, can contribute to other areas of biotechnology beyond the area of sensors.
Being able to control bacteria as a group rather than as individuals, and control their movement and organization in a colony, could help researchers build living materials at larger scales, and help with the Danino lab’s parallel goal of engineering bacteria to be living “smart” therapeutics, by enabling better control of bacterial behaviors in the body.
This work is a new approach for building macroscale bacterial recorders, expanding the framework for engineering emergent microbial behaviors.
The team next plans to build on their system by engineering the bacteria to detect a wider range of pollutants and toxins and moving the system to safe “probiotic” bacteria. Ultimately, they aim to develop a device to apply the recording system outside of the lab.
Source: Columbia University
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