Although “two roads diverged” in Robert Frost’s poem, “The Road Not Taken,” pathways often converge in science. A few weeks ago, I wrote about the potential good in a bad bacterium. Soon after that, one of my articles mentioned that a combination of synthetic biology and bioprocessing might improve the sustainability of the latter. Those two paths—good from a bad bacterium and a synthetic biology-bioprocessing combination—converged in work by Sungho Jang, PhD, a synthetic biologist and assistant professor at Incheon National University in South Korea, and his colleagues.

In Jang’s work, Vibrio plays the role of bad bacteria. These marine bacteria, according to the U.S. National Science Foundation, “are the dominant marine cause of death in humans.” For example, V. cholerae causes the potentially deadly cholera infection. On the upside of this deadly bacteria, Jang and his colleagues noted: “Recently, species within the Vibrio genus, notably Vibrio natriegens and related strains, have emerged as promising next-generation chassis due to their rapid growth rates, versatile substrate utilization, and biosafety level 1 classification.”

Design-build-test-learn cycle

In particular, Jang’s team pointed out that Vibrio is useful in the design-build-test-learn cycle of synthetic biology for producing proteins. Part of that comes from this bacteria’s growth rate—potentially doubling in number in less than 10 minutes. For comparison, that’s about twice as fast as Escherichia coli, which has been used often as a synthetic-biology chassis.

Before setting Vibrio loose to grow wildly, the bacteria can be genetically engineered to make, say, a therapeutic protein. Vibrio contains the machinery to excel at protein production. For example, Jang’s team pointed out that V. natriegens “possesses 30­–60% more ribosomes than E. coli, allowing for enhanced synthesis of proteins.”

Despite Vibrio’s natural potential for use in a synthetic biology-bioprocessing combination, some work needs to be done to make the most of this opportunity. As one example, Jang and his colleagues emphasized that the genome-engineering tools for E. coli are far more advanced than those for Vibrio. So, “unless substantial improvements in genome engineering are achieved, the full potential of Vibrio species as a next-generation chassis for synthetic biology will not be realized,” the scientists concluded.

If scientists develop new genome-engineering tools for Vibrio, it could, as Frost might say, make all the difference.

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