New tuneable genetic 'clocks' may improve biotech strategies

Scientists have worked out how to fine-tune cellular clocks, which might lead to optimised production of drugs, biofuels and other chemicals.

In genetics, oscillators are biological 'clocks' that express certain key genes at regular time intervals, said researchers from Imperial College London in the UK.

Such oscillators exist in all realms of life, from bacteria to humans - and their rhythms are at the core of essential processes like cell division and metabolism.

"We have shown that it's possible to independently tune the amplitude and frequency of genetic clocks, giving us greater control over their output," said Guy-Bart Stan from Imperial's Department of Bioengineering.

Currently, host bacterial cells are genetically altered to express genes that control the expression of desired proteins.

Genetic oscillators were some of the first bio-circuits constructed in synthetic biology and have already been used in various applications.

In the study published in the journal Cell Systems, the researchers used computer modelling to unravel the links between amplitude and frequency in current genetic oscillators, and, based on this, proposed new design principles to control amplitude and frequency independently.

These newly designed genetic clocks could help build more complex genetic networks for drug delivery, and even introduce a personalised medicine element.

Oscillators can be manipulated by external cues. For example, the day/night cycle influences the genes that control the release of melatonin, increasing its levels at night to induce and maintain sleepiness.

Scientists are increasingly giving genetic oscillators to engineered cells, to help them control the release of drugs, biofuels, and other chemicals.

Yet until now it has been difficult to control the frequency and amplitude of oscillations separately.

Now, researchers have shown new ways of better controlling genetic oscillations by tuning the desired amplitude and frequency.

This could let cells 'budget' resources by reducing the amount of time that genes stay 'on', which cuts the energy burden and the accumulation of toxic compounds in the cell.

It would streamline the process of producing drugs, biofuels, and other chemicals, making operations more productive and efficient.

The new study has shown new ways of better controlling genetic oscillations by tuning the desired amplitude and frequency.

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