CHEAP and environmentally friendly “living factories” capable of producing a range of products, including medicines and fuels, could be made by bacteria using a new gene programming technique, scientists have revealed.

Scientists at the University of Edinburgh invented the new technique – known as programmable gene activation – which enables them to control a wider range of genes and increase product yields.

It will allow researchers to target genes that are normally difficult to activate, including those involved in infections, or with industrial applications.

They said the advance could also make it easier to study how harmful strains of bacteria thrive and cause infections.

A lack of techniques that work well in bacteria has, until now, hindered research and limited their ability to be used to make useful products.

Using the new method, levels of gene activation are around 100 times higher than existing techniques, the team said. Current methods also mainly target basic genes involved in bacterial survival.

The new technique is adapted from an approach that uses scissor-like molecules – called CRISPR molecules – to make precise changes to the genetic code.

Researchers adapted the technology by attaching small guide molecules and proteins that target and switch on genes.

Their technique was developed for a widely studied species called Escherichia coli and a soil bacterium with potential applications for industry. It is also likely to work in many other species of bacteria, they say.

The team also developed a reusable scanning platform to make it faster and cheaper to find the best ways of activating multiple genes to produce high yields of useful substances.

The study, published in the journal Nature Communications, was funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, UK Research and Innovation, Leverhulme Trust and Wellcome.

Dr Baojun Wang, of the university’s School of Biological Sciences, who led the study, said: “This new method has the potential to be a powerful tool for programming bacteria, with diverse applications for research and industry. It could help save a lot of time and money.”