Microcosm Winner #5: What’s Your Favorite E. coli Trick?

View Images

At last we come to the fifth winning question about Microcosm, from Ceph. Once again, thanks to the ~240 people who entered the contest. I hope my answers to these five questions give you a sense of what my book’s about and why I’m so excited by this little germ. If you want to learn more about it, and about life, pick up a copy.

Ceph asks,

What is your favorite thing that has been done to E. coli (making it glow, smell like bananas, etc)?

My answer below…

E. coli has the odd honor of being the most-hacked organism on Earth. About forty years ago, scientists started figuring out how to move genes from other species into E. coli. Today millions of diabetics get their insulin from E. coli that carry human insulin genes. By transforming E. coli, scientists established the modern biotechnology industry. Today E. coli continues to serve as one of the favorite organisms of biological engineers, who are trying to rewire its genetic circuitry to do new things like kill tumors and make jet fuel. These experiments are important not just for the potential good they may do for medicine, or the potential profits for businesses. They are also important for expanding our notion of what it means to be alive. E. coli can, for example, now turn genes into proteins that no known organism makes today. Scientists have altered their genetic code for assembling amino acids based on their DNA sequence. They have also added new “letters” to the four nucleotides E. coli and all other known life forms use in their DNA. So we shouldn’t be too strict about what can and cannot be alive.

But to answer Ceph’s question, my favorite thing is the E. coli camera. I love how it can create a picture of us (like the one I show here). It is, in so many ways, a reflection of ourselves.