Refreshments available at 11:15
Dietary deficiencies of key vitamins and minerals (micronutrients) are a global humanitarian and economic problem with impacts most strongly felt in the developing world, killing millions every year and causing billions of dollars of economic loss. These micronutrient deficiencies are often referred to as “hidden hunger”, since people affected by these deficiencies may have sufficient caloric intake and thus do not necessarily display physical characteristics associated with starvation. The diagnosis of these nutritional deficiencies on an epidemiological scale is thus an important task, yet the existing approaches for diagnosing nutritional deficiencies suffer from a number of disadvantages that preclude them from large-scale use in most cases. Our goal is to use synthetic biology --- broadly defined as the manipulation of organisms to perform functions of which they were otherwise not capable --- to create a low-cost, minimal-equipment sensor for micronutrient levels that can be used as an on-site blood test to identify nutritional deficiencies. We have engineered bacteria to sense and respond to the levels of zinc, a key micronutrient, and to produce a corresponding pigment that enables visual readout of results with no equipment. We are continuing our efforts to engineer this sensor into a more field-friendly, robust assay. This seminar will present our latest results on the sensor engineering front, as well as discuss some of the biological insights that have emerged during this process while dealing with a number of metabolic engineering and other issues that we encountered.