Researchers to engineer yeast to detect cholera

A Columbia University researcher is trying to chemically engineer a simple yeast to detect cholera-causing bacteria in the feces of infected people or in the water supplies of infected areas.

Virginia Cornish, a chemistry professor at the university, utilized a $100,000 grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to conduct research on the yeast in her interdisciplinary synthetic biology lab.

Nili Ostrov, a Ph.D. candidate in chemistry, initially came up with the idea to use synthetic biology to create a sensor for cholera. The yeast would be similar to the kind used to make bread or beer.

"If we can buy Fleischmann's Yeast in the grocery store, why not make a freeze-dried yeast available that can detect cholera?" Cornish said. "We want to enable a nontechnical person, in the simplest setting, to be able to safely and easily use this-not in a lab but in their home."

The team plans to engineer a receptor on the yeast to target bacteria. When the receptor detects the bacteria it will activate signaling molecules to make the red-pigmented lycopene to signal researchers that cholera is present.

"The beauty of yeast is that it's a living system that propagates itself," Cornish said. "If we can create this and give it to a country that needs it, they can make as much as they want. If you can brew beer, you can produce this."

Cornish's team hopes to engineer the yeast to recognize one pathogen by next June, which would allow them to apply for a $1 million Gates grant to conduct field trials and bring the sensor to the countries that need it.