Emergent genetic oscillations in a synthetic microbial consortium

Significance Statement

The two novel strains of bacteria sent out intercellular signaling molecules and created linked positive (activator) and negative (repressor) feedback loops that affected gene production in the entire population. The researchers engineered the two bacterial strains to be fluorescent so their activities could be monitored. The two strains formed a consortium. This study moved synthetic biology toward multicellular systems. Moreover, controlling protein expression and developing synthetic microbial consortium has potential to produce better biofuels.

Emergent genetic oscillations in a synthetic microbial consortium-renewable energy global innovations

Journal Reference

Science. 2015 Aug 28;349(6251):986-9.

Chen Y1, Kim JK2, Hirning AJ1, Josić K3, Bennett MR4.

Show Affiliations

1Department of Biosciences, Rice University, Houston, TX 77005, USA.

2Department of Mathematical Sciences, Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology, Daejeon 305-701, Korea. Mathematical Biosciences Institute, The Ohio State University, Columbus, OH 43210, USA.

3Department of Mathematics, University of Houston, Houston, TX 77204, USA. Department of Biology and Biochemistry, University of Houston, Houston, TX 77204, USA.

4Department of Biosciences, Rice University, Houston, TX 77005, USA. Institute of Biosciences and Bioengineering, Rice University, Houston, TX 77005, USA. [email protected]


A challenge of synthetic biology is the creation of cooperative microbial systems that exhibit population-level behaviors. Such systems use cellular signaling mechanisms to regulate gene expression across multiple cell types. We describe the construction of a synthetic microbial consortium consisting of two distinct cell types—an “activator” strain and a “repressor” strain. These strains produced two orthogonal cell-signaling molecules that regulate gene expression within a synthetic circuit spanning both strains. The two strains generated emergent, population-level oscillations only when cultured together. Certain network topologies of the two-strain circuit were better at maintaining robust oscillations than others. The ability to program population-level dynamics through the genetic engineering of multiple cooperative strains points the way toward engineering complex synthetic tissues and organs with multiple cell types.

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Synthetic microbial consortium advancing biofuel production featured  on Renewable Energy Global Innovations.


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