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Workings of biological clocks illuminted with glowing, blinking bacteria

Disruptions to your circadian rhythm, which guide the body's internal clock, can result in a host of sleep disorders and have been linked to diabetes. In light of the growing body of research suggesting circadian-rhythm disorders may play a role in a number health problems, researchers are working to better understand the genetic underpinnings of the sleep-wake cycle.

While researchers know that our bodies, as well as simpler organisms, are synchronized by sunlight and can drift out of phase in darkness, the details of how a population of cells synchronizes their biological clocks remains a mystery. But new research from UC San Diego could yield important clues, reports Medgadget:

To remedy the problem, UC San Diego biology professor Jeff Hasty led a team of researchers to develop a model biological system that is simpler than that of an organism. The scientists created a simple circadian system using a model consisting of glowing, blinking E. coli bacteria. Drawing on their knowledge of synthetic biology, microfluidic technology, and computational modelling, the researchers built a microfluidic chip containing chambers with E. coli.

Researchers were able to simulate day and night cycles by modifying the bacteria to glow and blink whenever arabinose, a chemical that triggered the oscillatory clock mechanisms of the bacteria, was flushed through the microfluidic chip. This approach allowed researchers to replicate periodic day-night cycles over a period of only minutes rather than days providing a better understanding of how a population of cells synchronizes its biological clocks. The work is further described in a paper (subscription required) recently published in Science.

In the video above, the right side of the screen shows periodic pulses of arabinose (shown in red) act like day and night cycles to simulate how the blinking bacteria synchronize their biological clocks. On the left, a simulation of bacteria in constant darkness reveals how the blinking bacteria are unable to synchronize their biological clocks. The bottom two graphs illustrate the in-phase and out-of-phase oscillations of the biological clocks.

Previously: “Blink different:” E. coli engineered to alter blinking rate according to its environment

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