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Engineering E. coli to produce new antibiotics

Getting E. coli  to produce new antibiotics has long been a bioengineering goal. That’s because E. coli  grows rapidly, which speeds experimental steps and aids efforts to develop and scale up production of drugs. The species also accepts new genes relatively easily, making it a prime candidate for engineering. 

For over a decade, Blaine A. Pfeifer, an associate professor of chemical and biological engineering at the University at Buffalo, has focused on manipulating E. coli  so that the organism produces all of the materials necessary for creating erythromycin. You can think of this like stocking a factory with all the necessary parts and equipment for building a car or a plane. 

With that phase of the research complete, Pfeifer has turned to the next goal: Tweaking the way his engineered E. coli  produce erythromycin so that the drug they make is slightly different than versions used in hospitals today. The study is especially important with antibiotic resistance on the rise. 

The process of creating erythromycin begins with three basic building blocks called metabolic precursors — chemical compounds that are combined and manipulated through an assembly line-like process to form the final product, erythromycin. 

To build new varieties of erythromycin with a slightly different shape, scientists can theoretically target any part of this assembly line, using various techniques to affix parts with structures that deviate slightly from the originals. (On an assembly line for cars, this would be akin to screwing on a door handle with a slightly different shape.) 

“The system we’ve created is surprisingly flexible, and that’s one of the great things about it,” Pfeifer said. ““We have not only created new analogs of erythromycin, but also developed a platform for using E. coli  to produce the drug. This opens the door for additional engineering possibilities in the future; it could lead to even more new forms of the drug.”

Tags Tags: University at Buffalo , Research

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