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Blinking Genetic Clocks Synchronized

Photo of a supernova burst
A supernova burst in a colony of coupled genetic clocks show them flashing in synchrony.

Bioengineering graduate students Tal Danino and Octavio Mondragon are key members of a UCSD team that recently synchronized bacterial "genetic clocks" to blink in unison. The bacteria are endowed with genes engineered to alter their blinking rates when environmental conditions change. The work, published recently in Nature, marks another step toward the construction of a programmable genetic sensor. These sensors might one day provide humans with advance information about temperature, poisons and other potential hazards in the environment by monitoring changes in the blinking rates of bacteria.

"Programming living cells is one defining goal of the new field of synthetic biology," said Jeff Hasty, associate professor of biology and bioengineering at UCSD who headed the research team with Lev Tsimring, associate director of UCSD's BioCircuits Institute.

"Synchronization plays a crucial role in physics and biology as a way of self-organization of highly regular behavior with less than perfect components," said Tsimring. "This phenomenon has a myriad of applications in modern technology, from communication networks to GPS."

"Our study demonstrates how inherently noisy gene oscillators can operate together with beautiful synchronicity and regularity once coupled together in a specific way."

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