National Science Foundation-funded synthetic biologists have hacked bacterial sensing with a plug-and-play system that could be used to mix-and-match tens of thousands of sensory inputs and genetic outputs. The technology has wide-ranging implications for medical diagnostics, the study of deadly pathogens, environmental monitoring and more. In a project spanning almost six years, the researchers conducted thousands of experiments to show they could systematically rewire two-component systems, the genetic circuits bacteria use to sense their surroundings and listen to their neighbors. The group rewired the outputs of known bacterial sensors and also moved sensors between distantly related bacteria. Most importantly, they showed they could identify the function of an unknown sensor. The importance of a new tool that unlocks two-component systems is underscored by the 2018 discovery of two strains of a deadly, multidrug-resistant bacterium that uses an unknown two-component system to evade colistin, an antibiotic of last resort. But the researchers believe the possible uses of the tool extend beyond medicine.
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