Biologists engineered insect-bacteria mutualism – @theU

A new paper in Current Biology by Crystal Su and other collaborators from the School of Biological Sciences describes the development of a novel synthetic insect-bacteria symbiosis that is sustained across many generations of insects by transovarian bacterial transmission.

Symbiotic bacteria express a red fluorescent protein that is visible through the insect cuticle, facilitating the characterization of infection and transmission mechanisms in insect tissues and cells. Moreover, Su and. Al.engineered the bacteria to alter their ability to synthesize aromatic amino acids, which are used by the insect host to fuel cuticle reinforcement. Similarly, insects supporting bacteria that overproduce these nutrients had stronger cuticles, signifying a mutualistic function. Establishing this synthetic symbiosis will facilitate detailed molecular genetic analysis of symbiotic interactions and presents a basis for the use of genetically engineered symbionts in the engineering of insects that transmit diseases of medical and agricultural importance. The article is entitled “Rational engineering of a synthetic insect-bacteria mutualism”.

Broader Context

PHOTO CREDIT: Crystal Su

The weevil is the subject model of Crystal Su’s research presented in the journal Current Biology.

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SBS Professor and Principal Investigator Colin Dale said, “The work described in the article was catalyzed and spearheaded by Crystal Su, an extremely courageous and dedicated graduate student at SBS, who undertook this very high-risk, transformative project and overcame many obstacles, stubbornly refusing to do not take for an answer.”

Su hired the Golic, Snape and Gagnon SBS labs to help with specialized techniques, highlighting the usefulness of interdisciplinary science and the extent of the talent and collaborative spirit that exists in the school.

Dale considers Su’s work a ‘bucket list’ achievement, “something I dreamed of while playing games of cricket at Bristol University Vet School during my PhD. While Crystal has dedicated six years of her life to bringing this new novel biology to life, it is also the product of the seminal work of SBS graduate students over the previous decade, involving the identification, characterization, cultivation and the development of genetic tools for free-living proto-symbionts – living bacteria that have the ability to establish stable, mother-borne associations with insects.

Synthetic biology

Synthetic biology focuses on using engineering approaches to design and manufacture organisms (including associations and communities) that do not exist in the natural world. It can provide practical solutions to a wide range of problems in medicine, agriculture, materials, and environmental science. Additionally, it can be used to study the functions of natural systems, via replication and manipulation, as outlined in the Su et al. paper. To understand its potential, it helps to think about the contribution of synthetic approaches to other scientific disciplines, especially in chemistry, said Dale, who is also section chief of genetics and evolution at SBS.

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You can read more about research involving undergraduate students in the Dale Lab here.