Ecosystem in a Tube!

   Life on earth strives everywhere, no matter how harsh the environment appears. From the waters thousands of meters below sea surface where sunlight never shines through, to hundreds of miles from the shore where rain seldom hits the ground, one can always find traces of life. All living organisms, along with the surrounding environment, constitute an ecosystem, and all the diverse ecosystems together forms the biosphere.



   Yet, not every ecosystem is created by Mother Nature. In the fields of biochemistry and pharmaceutical industry, manipulating microscopic ecosystems in form of cultural solution is daily routine. The cultures are used for transgenic E. Coli and yeast so that we can harness our target chemicals (most of the time protein) efficiently. Although much smaller in scale compared with natural ecosystems, the tiny ones in test tubes are still complex and fascinating: the environment of these ecosystems are carefully built so that genetically programmed cells can thrive while others would perish. In order to achieve this, scientists and engineers added not only necessary nutrients but also specific antibiotics in the culture to ensure the survival and proliferation of wanted cells. Moreover, temperature and time are also carefully maintained to help wanted cells proliferate at maximum rate.


However, disasters can still happen in those test tube ecosystems. Here I am happy to share some of my personal experience in a biochemistry laboratory last summer. In order to synthesize FECH protein, we genetically modified E. Coli cells and carefully prepared culture solutions. Yet, a phage invasion stroke the laboratory, and all the genetically engineered cells died in their culture tubes that are supposed to be the ideal living condition of E. coli.




Lamoril J, Boulechfar S, de Verneuil H, Grandchamp B, Nordmann Y, Deybach JC. "Human erythropoietic protoporphyria: two point mutations in the ferrochelatase gene". Biochemical and Biophysical Research Communications, vol. 181, no. 2,  1991, pp. 594–9.


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