We’ll Use a Teeny Tiny Lasso: The Domestication of Bacteria

Sarah Richardson, DOE Joint Genome Institute, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory

Photo of Sarah Richardson

Humans have always benefited from the labor of cooperative animals. We are also quite picky about how plants taste. We have spent generations tweaking plants and animals to be tasty, non threatening, and capable of thriving in our preferred environment. We call these compliant plants and animals “domesticated” and we take special care of them, because they take care of us. We have even domesticated some microorganisms - yogurt, pickles, bread, beer, and MSG all come from carefully cultivated and amenable cells. All of these manipulations were accomplished the old fashioned way, by selective breeding, usually without any idea of what genetic changes we were perpetrating. With modern sequencing tools we can determine exactly what we have wrought in our stable - and with modern synthesis tools, we could make those changes directly to new organisms, in much less time than it took to turn a wolf into a dog. This is an ability we need now more than ever. We are constantly discovering new genes that could be incredibly useful for medicine, agriculture, and energy production - but the bacteria we find them in are feral, and our few domesticated bacteria cannot use them. It’s time to focus our attention on procuring ourselves some new bacterial allies.

Abstract Author(s): Sarah Richardson