When hearing the name E. coli most people get scared, as food poisoning, stomach pain or even death are some of the things that come to their mind. What many don’t’ know is that E. coli does not only refer to the famous pathogen but to many other strains of the same species that are absolutely harmless and even beneficial for us.
We can show thousands of papers that demonstrate this as, to date, E. coli is the most studied microorganism. But how comes that this bacterium gained so much fame? Why did E. coli become so popular? “I guess it is a matter of luck and opportunity” comments Jean-Marc Ghigo, the E. coli-expert from the Institut Pasteur. “At the beginning of the molecular biology and microbiology era when people had to choose a bacterium to work on, E. coli was not necessarily the first choice, there were many other bacteria”. However, it wasn’t until the twenties that E. coli became really popular: “K12 -the most commonly used strain of E. coli for research purposes- was isolated from the faeces of a healthy adult and shown to be very easy to grow, so much, that it progressively became the organism of choice for numerous studies and E. coli imposed itself as a very good model organism”. This was almost fifty years after Theodore Escherich, the German paediatrician to whom E. coli owes its name, described it for the first time in 1885.
But is not only the ease to grow what made E. coli so popular. “The particularity of E. coli is that it is a very resilient and versatile species that can live in many different environments including our digestive track” comments Ghigo.
The more people worked with E. Coli, the better it was understood, what kept this microbe at the top of the bacterial ranking. And with the raise of genetic engineering and biotechnology, the fame took E. coli from the laboratories to the industry transforming it into the pioneering star for the production of compounds like specialty chemicals or biopharmaceuticals.
The expression of genes that are introduced to the microorganisms to produce enzymes and recreate reactions of industrial interest, leads to the generation of products within the bacterial cells that have to compete for space and resources with the bacterial metabolism. Moreover, these products can even be toxic or lethal for the microorganisms hindering the possibility of obtaining the desired compounds.
It is precisely in this context that our project Rafts4Biotech comes into play. As could not be otherwise, we chose E. coli (together with the also very famous B. subtilis that we recently wrote about) to engineer synthetic lipid rafts and overcome these limitations. Confining our reactions of interest to the lipid rafts we aim at further boosting the industrial potential of E. coli as well as contributing to improve the public perception of this socially misunderstood microbe.