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Brief Published: 18 Jun 2015

Timekeeping Bacteria

E. coli

The first working circadian clock has been inserted into E. coli microbes by researchers at the Silver Lab at Harvard Medical School. The breakthrough could lead to bioengineered probiotics that counter the effects of jet lag and advance the development of biological computers.

The successful insertion of the clock means the bacteria are able to keep to a 24-hour schedule. Microbes that have the ability to keep time might also be used to deliver bioengineered medicines at certain times of the day.

"Timekeeping bacteria could be used to reduce the risks of clock-impaired diseases," Eran Elinav from the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel told New Scientist magazine. In 2014, Elinav's team found that microbial imbalances in the gut caused by jet lag could encourage glucose intolerance and obesity.

Products that help to ease the symptoms of jet lag by coordinating our internal circadian rhythms are already being developed, such as US airline Delta Airlines' Photon Shower.

Microbial timepieces could also one day be part of the toolkit of biological, or "living", computer designs, according to the Harvard researchers. Research into bio-computers is gathering pace; the latest developments in DNA data storage, biohardware and neuromorphic chips suggest it won't be long before a living computer is created. Read The Biology Boom for more on this topic.

Without the aid of light receptors to act as a natural pacemaker, the E. coli clock can only keep time for around three days. More research is needed to engineer a microbe capable of keeping time indefinitely.