Friday, February 02, 2007

Nano Scientists Create Twilight Zone Episode

Princeton scientists have created a microscopic habitat for thousands of E Coli bacteria, to test how they evolve and attempt to create 'super-bacteria.'

If this were a Michael Crichton novel, we would soon all need Jeff Goldblum to save us:

Ever since Charles Darwin proposed that animals adapt to their environment, scientists have dreamed of experimenting with this theory in a real-world landscape. Holding them back was the difficulty of creating a complex ecosystem that could be manipulated and controlled without placing wildlife at risk.

Now, Princeton scientists have found a way around this problem by fashioning a living, changeable ecosystem out of a tiny chip of silicon. Their creation is one of the strangest and smallest environments ever seen, but it could provide a valuable model to help researchers better understand how organisms survive in the natural world...

While the tiny habitat created by Robert Austin's group already has revealed insights into the fundamentals of adaptive ecology, it could someday offer practical applications as well.

The team is exploring how it can be used to breed useful strains of bacteria, much as one might breed dogs for hunting or shepherding.

For example, some bacteria give off pure hydrogen gas as a waste product, and thus could prove valuable as a safe, sustainable source of fuel. A strain of bacteria that produces high volumes of the gas could bring scientists a step closer to the much-touted hydrogen economy. The team's adaptive landscape may enable researchers to develop a strain with such characteristics.

"The basic idea is directed evolution," Austin said. "By observing the growth of different groups of bacteria in different chambers, we can also monitor each chamber for a desirable product, in this case hydrogen gas. We can reward those populations that produce lots of gas by giving them more food and space. Conversely, we would 'punish' underachieving bacterial colonies, but would not destroy them."

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