Wait, why? Are Animals harmed? These two may be the first two questions that arise after reading the title. Rest assured that no animals will be harmed since the organism producing these muscle fibers will be engineered microbes. A group of researchers at Washington University’s Engineering school conducted this research that leads to the production of stronger clothing that is more durable which makes it more sustainable because we are no longer using traditional materials like cotton, silk, and nylon.

First, what are Microbes? The National Center for Biotechnological Information states that Microbes are tiny living things that are found all around us and are too small to be seen by the naked eye. “They live in water, soil, and in the air. The human body is home to millions of these microbes too, also called microorganisms. … the most common types are bacteria, viruses, and fungi.” There are many different types of microbes, and there are some that are prokaryotic cells and others that are Eukaryotic cells. The difference between the two is that prokaryotes don’t have a nucleoid region while Eukaryotic cells contain a nucleus that stores DNA. Interestingly in prokaryotes, their DNA is circular-shaped while eukaryotes have linear DNA. In this particular study, they used bacteria, a prokaryotic single-celled organism.

E coli at 10000x, original

Picture of Microbes

Challenge 

 Through synthetic biology, this team modified bacteria so that the microbes were able to synthesize protein to produce muscle fibers. Synthetic biology is where “engineering principles are mixed with biology.” Well, to produce the proteins for muscle fibers, microbes must have ribosomes that synthesize amino acids and combine them to form protein chains. In this particular case, the protein they are synthesizing is titin. “It’s the largest known protein in nature,” said Cameron Sargent, a researcher on the team. It normally consists of 34,350 amino acids.

One of the problems the researchers overcame was controlling how the microbes were able to produce proteins “50 times” the average protein size. They utilized synthetic chemistry on the microbe they engineered to polymerize proteins and form many peptides and other bonds in the process. Peptide bonds, specifically, are covalent chemical bonds linking two consecutive amino acids.

201405 skeletal muscle

Muscle Fibers

My Take

I think this research is very advanced with regard to synthetic biology. If we further develop this field of science, in the future we might be able to synthesize more complex protein structures with simple microbes. I don’t see any bad implications that this research might have on society. I can’t wait to see what Professor Zhang and his team will produce in the future. Sargent  even said, “we can take proteins from different natural contexts, then put them into this platform for polymerization and create larger, longer proteins for various material applications with a greater sustainability.” With applications that are only limited by our imagination, I want to commend Professor Zhang and his team’s effort.

Points to Ponder and Comment:

If clothing were designed out of muscle fibers ethically, would you wear it? Why or why not? What uses do you have envisioned for this field of science if it continues to advance?

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