by Matthew Herper
Christopher Voigt, 30
University of California, San Francisco
“We program cells like robots,” says Christopher Voigt.
Voigt is at the forefront of a group of young researchers working to deliver on the profound promise of genetic engineering: Rebuilding living organisms to fight disease, make bio-fuels and solve industrial problems.
To do this, Voigt works hard to understand what “commands” are programmed on the DNA of simple organisms like the E. coli bacteria. Then he changes the commands so the organism does his bidding.
Like most “synthetic biologists,” Voigt began his career with simple “toy” problems. For instance, he designed photographic film made out of living cells that changed color when they were exposed to light. But he is already moving to more practical applications.
One of his custom-built E. coli is designed to hunt down cancer cells. Tumors create an environment where there is very little oxygen; the bacteria detect these low-oxygen areas and release chemicals that could kill the tumor. Voigt has started testing these cancer-hunting bugs in mice.
Another goal, kick-started by a grant from British Petroleum, is to create bacteria that can efficiently turn corn and other plants into bio-fuels. To that end, Voigt is experimenting on bacteria with plant-digesting genes, including those found in termites, sheep and bacteria that live on your lawn. Another project would use bacteria to create super-strong silk.
All this, Voigt says, is just the “low-hanging fruit.” Nature has had billions of years to design life–we are just getting started.