Because a naturally occurring caffeine-addicted bacteria just isn’t cool enough any more, a team of microbiologists have genetically engineered a newer, better, more advanced caffeine-addicted bacteria. That’s the startling information from a letter published this month in the journal ACS Synthetic Biology.
The natural organism, Pseudomonas putida, is just soooo 2011. Yet it was only two years ago that a humble soil bacteria discovered in a University of Iowa flower bed gained worldwide attention for its adorable habit of feeding entirely on caffeine.
Oh, it was the darling of science for a little while. Presented to the world at an American Society for Microbiology conference in New Orleans,P. putida‘s gift for digesting caffeine — its only food — was going to lead the way to new medicines for everything from asthma to cardiovascular disease.
Or, at the very least, it was going to lead to a new and improved process for creating decaffeinated coffee.
But that was yesterday’s caffeine-addicted bacteria. Today’s version is a new and improved genetically modified beast. The team has successfully transferred the caffeine-feeding genetic material from P. putida to an easy-to-handle lab classic Escherichia coli.
Once they performed the transfer, good old E. coli was instantly addicted to caffeine and performed admirably at the task of slurping all the caffeine out of various “common beverages.”
No word on whether they tried it on the highly caffeinated new brew, Death Wish Coffee.
Not that I want to alarm anyone, and I’m confident that the microbiologists know exactly what they’re doing, but E. coli has another role. Harmless strains of the organism often live out their lives as human gut bacteria, where they reportedly sometimes helpfully produce vitamin K.
The new strain is presumably being produced because it’s more effective at removing caffeine from beverages than some random rural bacteria that hangs out with flower roots.
Here’s my question. Say this new, improved caffeine-eater escapes into the wild and then colonizes peoples’ guts, where it can feast away on any caffeine you might happen to consume. Anybody have a problem with that?
Forget the oncoming zombie apocalypse. If the caffeine-addicted bacteria gets loose, we might welcome the end of the world.
[coffee photo courtesy Jon Sullivan and Wikipedia Commons]