Researchers Reset Bacteria’s Internal Clock by Rewiring Metabolism

Many of the body’s processes follow a natural daily rhythm or so-called circadian clock, so that there are certain times of the day when a person is most alert, when the heart is most efficient, and when the body prefers sleep. Even primitive organisms have a circadian clock, and a December 10 Cell Reports study conducted in bacteria provides insights on what drives this clock and how it might be manipulated. The Rust Lab utilize a bacterial species (cyanobacteria) to determine how the organisms’ circadian clock learns what time of day it is. “The answer seems to be especially simple: the clock proteins sense the metabolic activity in the cell,” says senior author Dr. Michael Rust, of the University of Chicago’s Institute for Genomics and Systems Biology. “This is probably because cyanobacteria are naturally photosynthetic—they’re actually responsible for a large fraction of the photosynthesis in the ocean—and so whether the cell is energized or not is a good indication of whether it’s day or night.” For photosynthetic bacteria, every night is a period of starvation, and the circadian clock likely helps them grow during the day in order to prepare for nightfall.

The Rust Lab separated metabolism from light exposure by using a synthetic biology approach to make photosynthetic bacteria capable of living on sugar, rather than sunlight. “I was surprised that this actually worked—by genetically engineering just one sugar transporter, it was possible to give these bacteria a completely different lifestyle than the one they have had for hundreds of millions of years,” says Dr. Rust.


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