Global Challenges/Chemistry Solutions

Supplying Safe Drinking Water: The first caffeine-‘addicted’ bacteria

June 10, 2013

Genetically engineered bacteria are “addicted” to caffeine in a way that promises practical uses ranging from decontamination of wastewater to bioproduction of medications for asthma.

Credit: iStockphoto/Thinkstock

Summary

Some people may joke about living on caffeine,
but scientists now have genetically engineered E.
coli bacteria to do that — literally. Their report in
the journal ACS Synthetic Biology describes bacteria
being “addicted” to caffeine in a way that promises
practical uses ranging from decontamination
of wastewater to bioproduction of medications
for asthma.

Some people may joke about living on caffeine, but today’s solution describes how scientists have genetically engineered E. coli bacteria to literally be addicted to caffeine. Such bacteria could have practical uses ranging from decontamination of wastewater to bioproduction of medications for asthma. The report on the caffeine-“addicted” bacteria appears in the journal ACS Synthetic Biology.

Jeffrey Barrick, Ph.D., is at the University of Texas at Austin, and he’s the lead author of the paper. He explains that caffeine and related chemical compounds have become important water pollutants. That’s because they are in so many products, like coffee, soda pop, tea, energy drinks and chocolate. They are also in certain medications for asthma and other lung diseases.

“We knew that a natural soil bacterium, Pseudomonas putida CBB5, can actually live solely on caffeine and could be used to clean up such environmental contamination. So we set out to transfer the genetic gear for metabolizing, or breaking down, caffeine from P. putida into that old workhorse of biotechnology, E. coli, which is easy to handle and grow.”

The study reports their success in accomplishing this feat. It also describes the development of a synthetic “packet of genes” for breaking down caffeine and related compounds that can be moved easily to other microbes. When engineered into certain E. coli, the result was bacteria literally addicted to caffeine.

“The genetic packet could have applications beyond environmental remediation. In fact, it could be used as a sensor to measure caffeine levels in beverages, as a way to recover nutrient-rich byproducts of coffee processing and for the cost-effective bioproduction of medicines.”

Smart Chemists/Innovative Thinking

Smart chemists. Innovative thinking. That’s the key to solving global challenges of the 21st Century. Please check out more of our full-length podcasts on wide-ranging issues facing chemistry and science, such as promoting public health, developing new fuels and confronting climate change, at www.acs.org/GlobalChallenges. Today’s podcast was written by Katie Cottingham—that’s me—and I’m at the American Chemical Society in Washington.

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Jeffrey Barrick, Ph.D.,
University of Texas at Austin