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Take 2 E. coli and call in the morning

Millions of people take capsules of probiotics with the goal of improving their digestion, but what if those bacteria were also able to detect diseases in the gut and indicate when something is awry? New research has created an effective, non-invasive way to quickly identify new bacterial biosensors that can recognize and report the presence of various disease triggers in the gut, helping set the stage for a new frontier of digestive health monitoring and treatment. The new platform builds on previous work that designed a genetic circuit consisting of a "memory element" derived from a virus and a synthetic "trigger element" that together can detect and record the presence of a given stimulus -- originally, a deactivated version of the antibiotic tetracycline. The synthetic circuit was integrated into the genomes of E. coli bacteria, which were introduced into live mice that were then given tetracycline. The antibiotic caused the trigger element in the bacterial circuit to activate the memory element, which "flipped" like a switch that remained "on" for up to a week so that the bacteria "remembered" the presence of the tetracycline. The "on" signal was then easily read by non-invasively analyzing the animals' excrement.

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