Cells are said to be “competent” when they are able to take up DNA from the environment and incorporate it into their own genome. Competent E. coli cells have long been the most popular host for molecular biology research. Working with E. coli has become routine, but standard production procedures are tedious and require specialized equipment.


Buz Barstow and colleagues at Cornell University propose the fast-growing microbe Vibrio natriegens as a replacement host, especially for researchers and students without access to traditional laboratory equipment. V. natriegens is not normally competent unless it is starving and has access to chitin—a substance found in the shells of crustaceans.

However, the authors produce an edited strain that does not require chitin to become competent, and can be fed a simple, defined, but nutrient-poor media to maintain the competence state, according to the study published in PNAS Nexus.

Low-cost transformation

The authors show how this strain can be made competent and transformed through the addition of new genetic material without special equipment such as incubators, shakers, or deep freezers.

According to the authors, their proposed V. natriegens platform can enable the democratization of synthetic biology, especially in education. Recent advances in AI and dropping costs for DNA synthesis are opening up new protein engineering possibilities—including the possibility of creating new protein drugs.

Traditional DNA transformation technology, however, limits the number of designs that can be tested. The proposed V. natriegens platform will enable ultra-scalable transformation and testing of new synthetic proteins, according to the authors.