The Prospects of Artificial Endosymbioses
The use of beneficial microbes holds promise for public health and food production, but has trade-offs that are not yet fully understood.
In the engineering of biological systems, it can be said unequivocally that art imitates nature. Nearly all efforts to control human health, the environment, and agriculture involve the appropriation of evolutionary processes. These processes typically originate through incremental changes in the genome that are sustained and promoted through natural selection in descendant lineages. Recombinant DNA technology and more recently genome editing help us imitate these genome-level changes in engineered systems. However, the dramatic evolutionary innovations that are attributed to singular beneficial endosymbioses, in which a mutualist microbial cell inhabits a host’s cell, are also worthy of imitation. For example, researchers are studying how to engineer endosymbiotic bacteria to control mosquito-borne viral diseases, tweak nitrogen-fixing microbes to help crop plants, and treat macular degeneration, just to name a few projects that are under way.
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