E. coli used to plumb pipe leaks

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A group of students from Aberdeen University have shown that certain strains of E.coli can be used to automatically mend leaking pipes.

The team were awarded a gold medal for their efforts in the international Genetically Engineered Machine competition (iGEM), which saw 110 university teams from across the globe complete to design and assemble biological systems.

This was the first time that an Aberdeen team had entered the annual contest, which took place at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Boston.

The Aberdeen students tested how specific strains of E. coli, which are not deadly or poisonous to humans, could be used to automatically mend cracks that occur in, for example, household water pipes or cooling pipes in laboratory experiments.

The team said that its engineered E. coli would first detect leaks by homing in on a chemical signal released at the leak site. Then, as the bacteria migrated towards the leak, they would synthesise two proteins - one on the outside of the cell, the other inside - which represent the two components of a biological protein glue.

The adhesive would only be activated when the two components mixed. The E. coli cells could be engineered to burst at the leak site, mixing the two glue components and creating a sticky protein plug to repair the pipe.

The 12-strong team of students - from across academic areas including biology, physics, computing science, maths and engineering - received the gold medal in recognition of the quality of its entry and the contribution made by the team to the development of the field of synthetic biology.

A description of the team’s project can be found at: http://2009.igem.org/Team:Aberdeen_Scotland