Mine sniffing bacteria

Not only dogs and rats can sniff out explosives. Genetically modified bacteria can do so too. Or so TU Delft students participating at the at the International Genetically Engineered Machines competition believe.

The International Genetically Engineered Machine competition (iGEM) is an undergraduate synthetic biology competition which started in 2003 at MIT. Working at their universities over the summer, teams design synthetically enhanced Escherichia coli bacteria that can do all kinds of fun or useful stuff. For this the students usr ‘bio bricks’ sent to them by MIT. These are standardized bits of DNA that have known effects in the cell and can be used as building blocks.

Since 2008, students from TU Delft have been participating. They demonstrated that it should be possible to use engineered E. coli bacteria that can sense temperature in thermometers and that, with some genetic modifications, E. coli could be used to clean up oil spills.

This year Delft students teamed up with students from Leiden University and the Rotterdam University. The team consists of thirteen students, with different backgrounds, such as nano biology, applied physics, electro technique and industrial design. The students  will present their invention, a modified Escherichia coli bacterium called Electrace, during the first week of November at the iGEM Jamboree in Boston, along with 243 other teams.

Electrace must create a little electrical current when exposed to explosive chemicals, such as TNT, DNT and DNB, which are secreted by old landmines. “The idea is to make a micro fluidic device with these bacteria, a sort of chip, which can be used to detect landmines”, says 26-year-old biology and medical laboratory research student Esra Bekdas from Rotterdam University. Bekdas and her colleagues have had contact with the the bomb disposal service of the Dutch ministry of defense to find out what chemicals old mines from the first and second world wars secrete and how they should therefore fine tune their bacteria.

Editor Redactie

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