Minty E. Coli And Other Bioengineering Feats Scientists all over the world are matter-of-factly amending, changing and rearranging living creatures for all kinds of reasons, some silly, some profound. Take the case of the MIT team that made the icky-smelling bacteria E. coli and gave it a wintergreen-scented twist.
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Minty E. Coli And Other Bioengineering Feats

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Minty E. Coli And Other Bioengineering Feats

Minty E. Coli And Other Bioengineering Feats

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Nearly 2 dozen students will graduate from MIT next month with a degree in an emerging field, a new kind of engineering: biological engineering. It's attracting a lot of interest from agriculture, medicine and NPR science correspondent Robert Krulwich. He's been thinking a lot about the biotech revolution from his desk at a place called Radio Lab.

(Soundbite of a sci-fi sound effects)

MONTAGNE: That sound means we're there. And, Robert, remind us what it is.

ROBERT KRULWICH: Radio Lab is a place where we explore big ideas that make us rethink ourselves and the whole world around us. It's a place where you'll find my partner in crime, Radio Lab's creator, Jad Abumrad.

JAD ABUMRAD: Hey, Robert. Hey, Renee.


KRULWICH: So I've been looking at the promises of this new field bioengineering, and nobody waxes more eloquent or dreams more broadly about this than Freeman Dyson.

ABUMRAD: Who is, by the way, a physicist at Princeton and famous for his work in quantum mechanics.

KRULWICH: So let me just play you what he said at a graduation speech he gave recently at the University of Michigan.

Professor FREEMAN DYSON (Physicist, Princeton): There will be do-it-yourself tips for gardeners who will use genetic engineering to breed new varieties of roses and orchids, kits for lovers of pigeons and parrots and lizards and snakes to breed new varieties of pets. Genetic engineering, once it gets into the hands of housewives and children, will give us an explosion of diversity of new living creatures.

ABUMRAD: That's quite a vision. So, Robert, let me ask. How far off do you think this sci-fi future really is?

KRULWICH: It's not far off. It is here. It is now. There are kids today who are already up to their chins in bioengineering.

ABUMRAD: Really?

KRULWICH: How old were you when you did this?

Mr. STEPHEN PAYNE (Student, MIT): I guess I was 20. I'm 21 right now.

KRULWICH: Okay. Who are you? What's your name and what do you do?

Mr. PAYNE: I'm Stephen Payne. I'm a senior in biological engineering at MIT.

KRULWICH: Now, here's the thing about Stephen. He, like most kids who are in the sciences in college, had to spend hours and hours and hours in the lab waiting for E. coli to slowly grow in a Petri dish.

ABUMRAD: E. coli - like the stuff that gives you food poisoning?

KRULWICH: Well, yeah. It's the stuff that - it's common bacteria. It lives naturally in your gut. And it's, by the way, a big laboratory favorite. And the problem is, says Reshma Seti(ph), who's a grad student at MIT, is E. coli in the raw…

Ms. RESHMA SETI (Graduate student, MIT): …actually smell really bad.

KRULWICH: What does it smell like?

Ms. SETI: Actually, it kind of smells, I guess, maybe like poo. You know?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SETI What do you think it smells like?

Mr. PAYNE: Feces.

KRULWICH: But anyway, Steven and his friends got it into their heads that they could make…

Ms. SETI: Make E. coli that smells…

KRULWICH: …you know, nicer.

Ms. SETI: Yep, nicer smelling.

KRULWICH: Like cinnamon or cherry.

Ms. SETI: Or like minty fresh.

Mr. PAYNE: We ended up deciding on wintergreen.

ABUMRAD: Wintergreen?

KRULWICH: You got something against wintergreen?


KRULWICH: In the real world who has wintergreen?

Mr. PAYNE: Uh, it's the petunia plant.

KRULWICH: Petunias have wintergreen? I had no idea.

Ms. SETI: Yeah. A lot of folks study why plants make nice smells. So why do roses smell nice? Why do petunias smell nice? So what we did was we requested from one of these folks - Natalia Dudareva from Purdue University - we asked her to send us a sample of one of the genes she had studied that produces this wintergreen smell.

Mr. PAYNE: She mailed it.

Ms. SETI: Through the mail.

KRULWICH: They opened it up…

Ms. SETI: We took it…

Mr. PAYNE: We took it out.

KRULWICH: What were you taking out? A little bit of gunk?

Mr. PAYNE: It's actually living cells - living, dried cells.

Ms. SETI: Yeah. We pulled out the DNA, put it into a new cell…

KRULWICH: And once the new DNA had done its thing, Steven called everybody into the lab…

Ms. SETI: And we all came over and we're like, whoa, this E. coli culture actually does smell like mint.

Mr. PAYNE: And we were like, yay.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SETI: That's crazy.

Mr. PAYNE: Yay.

ABUMRAD: So instead of smelling poo all day, they get to smell wintergreen.

KRULWICH: Well, actually, there was more than that, because after their wintergreen success, Stephen and Reshma decided, you know, why should we stay in the lab all day, even though it smells nicer now? Because we have to sit there and watch these E. coli grow and grow and grow until they're ready to be experimented on. We could be outside playing Frisbee.

So they decided to a little trigger inside the E. coli. So when it's done growing, it switches from wintergreen to banana.

ABUMRAD: Banana?

Mr. PAYNE: Banana.

Ms. SETI: Yeah, the banana.

Mr. PAYNE: So banana.

Ms. SETI: You know, it smells like a banana milkshake. I mean, it smells more like a banana than a banana does.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KRULWICH: So wintergreen means it's still growing, and banana means we're done.

Ms. SETI: Yup.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MONTAGNE: Guys, that's really kind of awe-inspiring.

ABUMRAD: Absolutely. Like in a grabbing-evolution-by-the-scruff-of-the-neck kind of way.

KRULWICH: Well, but one does wonder, since we are here talking about constructing life, whether we really ought to be doing this thing with quite such abandon.

Were you at all intrigued by the idea that as far as I know - and maybe as far as you know, maybe as far anybody knows - in the history of the E. coli creature, there has never been an E. coli that smelled like wintergreen?

Mr. PAYNE: Yeah.

KRULWICH: You made it yourself.

Mr. PAYNE: Well, with the help of my team members. Yes.

KRULWICH: Did you feel a little spooked by the fact that you just created a life form new to creation?

Mr. PAYNE: I mean, at least we're doing something that's, you know, smells pleasant.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KRULWICH: But didn't feel like Dr. Frankenstein or god or…

Mr. PAYNE: Not at all.

KRULWICH: What does it feel like to make something that's never existed before?

Mr. PAYNE: It just feels like basic engineering.

Ms. SETI: Yeah. We're engineers. I would say we're engineers. We're building stuff, building stuff, building stuff.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Building stuff, stuff, stuff. And not just stuff, stuff, stuff. But living stuff. The road ahead is bright and clear…

MONTAGNE: Wow. I don't know. That's a long way from the Bunsen burners in my chemistry class.

KRULWICH: Very long way. And Stephen and Reshma are just two of now what is hundreds of people who are beginning to fiddle with life and who are marching off into a future which we should at least be watching closely.

MONTAGNE: Robert, Jad, thanks for stopping by.

ABUMRAD: Thanks.

MONTAGNE: That's Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich from Radio Lab, a production of WNYC.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Group: It's mankind's only fighting chance. Designer genes, not denim pants. We'll stop disease and greenhouse gases, sequencing nucleic acids, crack the code. We've seen the light. We're building stuff. We're building life. They're building life. The road ahead is bright and clear, because we're bioengineers.

Unidentified Man: We're building stuff.

(Soundbite of explosion)

MONTAGNE: You can explore Radio Lab and all sorts of new organisms at

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Steve Inskeep.

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