Tiny bacterial factories dubbed “bacterial dirigibles” might someday deliver disease-fighting chemicals straight to a targeted body part – like your intestine. That’s according to a presentation that William E. Bentley from the University of Maryland, College Park, made at the 241st National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society in late March, 2011. He said these microbes that we often associate with disease may one day help cure us.
Scientists have long hijacked bacterial cells as nano-factories for molecules to treat illness. Bacteria have busily made insulin to treat diabetes and produce antibiotics that we turn right around and use to kill bacteria. But these proposed disease-fighting dirigibles are a bit different. Researchers change them on the outer surface, adding special chemical tags that make the bacteria home in on a target, ignoring other kinds of tissues.
Once they arrive at the target tissue, these nano-factories can get to work. “Work” could mean anything from making a chemical to fight food poisoning to targeting tumor cells in order to kill cancer. These bacteria would have to be especially programmed to produce the disease-fighting chemicals when they arrive at their destination.
How likely is this space-age-sounding technology to become a reality? Bentley and his group have made up an example of the proposed dirigible. They engineered the intestinal bacteria E. coli to attach only to intestinal cells in a culture dish. Once at the cells, the E. coli properly sent out signals to other bacteria, coaxing them to make the desired chemicals. These results suggest that at the very least, these disease-fighting dirigibles have a fighting chance some day to become part of our weaponry against illness.
Bentley chose the term “dirigibles” for the nano-factories because, according to a news release, the bacteria they’ve created look like little blimps and even float like blimps as they head for their targets. Whatever you want to call them — blimps, dirigibles, nano-factories, or plain old E. coli — this possible disease-fighting delivery system that William Bentley presented at the American Chemical Society meeting is certainly likely to have people thinking about bacteria — and dirigibles — in new ways.
Dr. Emily Willingham came to EarthSky from The Biology Files. Her background includes a PhD in biological sciences, a bachelor's degree in English, and a published book: The Complete Idiot's Guide to College Biology. She is a scientist, writer, editor, teacher, autism & ADHD parent, and "all around opinionator." Says Emily: "Got an English BA & biology PhD, & I'm not afraid to use them, often together."