• ‘Programmed’ bacteria will travel through cows in biocompatible devices providing information on the health of the animal
  • Potential for bacteria-to-bacteria communication, triggering in-situ treatment for health issues
  • Interface between computer- and bio-science paves the way for a new generation of efficient, environmentally-friendly biological computers

Pioneering molecular communication research carried out by scientists in Ireland is ‘programming’ common bacteria to be able to receive and send valuable information inside the body of an animal.  

The work is being conducted by researchers from the Walton Institute and the Pharmaceutical and Molecular Biotechnology Research Centre (PMBRC) in South East Technological University in Waterford, operating in partnership with the VistaMilk SFI Research Centre.

The microscopic organisms – e-coli bacteria, commonly found in the gut of healthy warm-blooded creatures – are ‘programmed’ in the lab, to be sent on their journey of discovery inside an indigestible and inert capsule. The capsule allows them to ‘sample’ the environment outside and – if they encounter what they’re looking for (that is, signs of deficiencies, or markers of disease) they ‘signal’ their discoveries. The process is less intrusive than current methods of health screening/monitoring and therefore has animal welfare benefits.

Jennifer Drohan, the PhD student at PMBRC and the Walton Institute behind the creation of the bionanomachines (bacteria with ‘programmed’ behaviours, or BNMs) believes that her work in combining ICT (information and communication technology) with molecular biology will bring significant benefits to the dairy farming industry and, in time, could have far wider implications. Speaking about the research, she said:

“The work we’re doing in engineering – or programming – the bacteria to perform a specific function will provide farmers with a non-invasive, greener solution to monitoring cattle health, which in turn will improve the efficiency (and environmental sustainability) of the national herd.

“While, at the moment, the bionanomachines are limited to recognising certain markers and reacting accordingly, it is wholly possible they could be programmed to communicate their findings to another set of BNMs with different programming. This second set might then deliver a targeted treatment.”

Dr Daniel Martins is a post-doctoral researcher at the Walton Institute working with the project to understand how the bacteria communicate and how this knowledge might be used in the creation of bacteria-based measurement sensors and computing devices for the health and smart agriculture sectors.

“There will come a time where everything is biological” he says. “Molecular communication – programming bacteria to gather and deliver information – presents enormous possibilities and could be an easier, more sustainable solution to the ICT requirements of the future, particularly in regard of health and wellness.”

Dr Lee Coffey, Principal Investigator at the PMBRC, is overseeing the bionanomachines project and believes that, while it’s another first for Irish research in the agricultural technology sphere, it has wider implications – which will take time to develop and implement.

“This is ground-breaking research being done here – both in the utilisation of bacteria to receive and transmit information and in the advances that this could facilitate in sensor and computer tech.

“There are, of course, further possibilities presented by the molecular communication potential of programmed bacteria – for example, in the wider human health sector. This will require general acceptance of a new concept and an economic case for it, and it could be one or two decades away.”