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UCLA Magazine Fall 2004
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Fall 2004
The Next Wave
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Illustration of a Double Helix DNA Strand
"Nanotechnology is in our watches, cars, hospitals and it shuffles information around. But it's also about therapies and new ideas — the next big thing that's going to change the world in 20 years."
—Jim Gimzewski

“The goal is to teach bacteria a new language,” says James Liao, a professor of chemical engineering at the Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science. Earlier this year, Liao discovered a way to alter cell metabolism, thereby allowing cells to artificially communicate with each other. Scientists like Liao can now synchronize cell behavior in bacteria to create “designer biosystems” capable of manufacturing a range of naturally derived commercial products such as antibiotics, plastics, even renewable energy. “Most of our chemicals today come from petroleum,” says Liao. “In the next few decades, we will replace petroleum-based chemicals with biologically based chemicals.”

Liao’s research is part of a field known as metabolic engineering. He’s done some remarkable things with bacteria. By changing the regulation of a gene in the ubiquitous bacteria Escherichia coli, he obtained lycopene, a nutrient-rich substance in tomatoes that is known to fight prostate cancer. In another experiment, Liao changed the genetic-control loop of a gene in a bacterial cell. The cell glowed whenever the gene was expressed. What’s more, it glowed in a rhythmic fashion and even amplified its luminescence when “ordered” to do so.

“The glowing is totally artificial,” explains Liao. “The idea was to ask ourselves whether we can design something that makes the cell behave in a complicated fashion. To carry the idea further, electronics engineers can design anything — no one is surprised by the developments in the silicon world anymore. The challenge is to approach that direction in biological systems. Eventually we want to be able to manipulate DNA just as we manipulate electronics. Designing bacteria is the early beginning, and as we do more and more complex things we can go on to humans.”

And perhaps even create synthetic forms of life that have never existed before. Bizarre as this might sound, attempts to do just that have been under way. Last year, Craig Venter, an American geneticist who headed a controversial private effort to sequence the human genome, launched a project to build a synthetic bacterium — by writing its genome. It was biotechnology’s most audacious attempt to rewrite the language of life by, in effect, playing God.

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