• ‘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 by Irish scientists is ‘programming’ common bacteria 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 under the VistaMilk umbrella.

RISE OF THE BIONANOMACHINES: Irish Scientists Programme Bacteria to Gather Data on Animal Health | VistaMilk

Image shows, l to r, Dr Lee Coffey (Principal Investigator at the PMBRC), Jennifer Drohan (PhD student at PMBRC and the Walton Institute) and Dr Daniel Martins (post-doctoral researcher at the Walton Institute).

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 (ie 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.

“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.”

For further information, or to arrange an interview with Jennifer Drohan, Dr Daniel Martins or Dr Lee Coffey:

Jeremy Probert | 4TC | jeremy@4tc.ie | (+353) (0)89-700-0792

Craig McKechnie | 4TC | craig@4tc.ie | (+353) (0)87-621-8839

About the Pharmaceutical and Molecular Biotechnology Research Centre

The PMBRC is an applied research centre that commenced operations in 2009, consolidating research in the chemical, pharmaceutical and biotechnological sciences at South East Technological University (SETU) into one institutionally prioritised centre. Situated on the SETU campus in Waterford City, the centre seeks to support R&D activities within the pharmaceutical and healthcare industries, thereby stimulating research and innovation and allowing companies to embed R&D directly into their activities.

The centre, one of 16 Enterprise Ireland Technology Gateways, consists of an 800m2 state-of-the-art research facility with over 30 research personnel. A truly multidisciplinary team, researchers at the PMBRC include chemists, biologists, biomedical scientists, physicists and engineers, and the centre has established links with national and international partners in industry, academia and medical care institutions.

About the Walton Institute

Walton Institute has been a cornerstone of ICT research and development activity in Ireland since 1996. Based on South East Technological University (SETU)’s West Campus at Carriganore, Walton Institute undertakes cutting edge research blending fundamental science with real world commercial applications.

Formerly known as the Telecommunications Software & Systems Group (TSSG), the aim of the Institute is to investigate futuristic next-generation technologies, to verify their capabilities and applicability for today’s society, and to work in collaboration with industry to ensure their commercialisation. Walton Institute encourages inter-disciplinary research with prominent national and international reputation and competitiveness firmly positioning the South East of Ireland on the Knowledge Economy map.

About VistaMilk

Established in 2018, the VistaMilk SFI Research Centre identifies challenges and solves problems for the Irish dairy sector in four specific areas – soil, pasture, cow, and food. VistaMilk is a unique collaboration between Agri-Food and information communications technology (ICT) research institutes and leading Irish/multinational food and ICT companies. It is funded by Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) and the Department of Agriculture Food and the Marine (DAFM).

Through strategic collaboration and co-ordination, VistaMilk’s research programme provides an opportunity to acquire, analyse and act upon data to generate a range of recommendations and practical solutions to real and current issues. VistaMilk’s access to expertise and resources makes it an authoritative voice on a range of topics facing the Irish dairy industry, including sustainability, emissions reduction, and carbon sequestration.

VistaMilk’s projects will enable Irish dairy farmers to develop the sustainable practices that will protect the 17,500 family farms, the 60,000 jobs and the €6.8bn yearly economic contribution that dairy supports in this country. It will also provide consumers with the reassurance of knowing that the dairy products they buy continue to be both farmed and processed locally.