Can coffee treat diabetes? It can in mice with this synthetic genetic implant

Enlarge / Therapeutic coffee? (credit: GettySteve Christo – Corbis)

In the distant future, your morning cup of joe may not just perk up your brain—it may perk up your genes, too. At least, that’s the optimistic outlook of some synthetic biologists in Switzerland.

A team led by Martin Fussenegger of ETH Zurich in Basel has shown that caffeine can be used as a trigger for synthetic genetic circuitry, which can then in turn do useful things for us—even correct or treat medical conditions. For a buzz-worthy proof of concept, the team engineered a system to treat type 2 diabetes in mice with sips of coffee, specifically Nespresso Volluto coffee. Essentially, when the animals drink the coffee (or any other caffeinated beverage), a synthetic genetic system in cells implanted in their abdomen switches on. This leads to the production of a hormone that increases insulin production and lowers blood sugar levels—thus successfully treating their diabetes after a simple morning brew.

The system, published Tuesday in Nature Communications, is just the start, Fussenegger and his colleagues suggest enthusiastically. “We think caffeine is a promising candidate in the quest for the most suitable inducer of gene expression,” they write. They note that synthetic biologists like themselves have long been in pursuit of such inducers that can jolt artificial genetics. But earlier options had problems. These included antibiotics that can spur drug-resistance in bacteria and food additives that can have side effects. Caffeine, on the other hand, is non-toxic, cheap to produce, and only present in specific beverages, such as coffee and tea, they write. It’s also wildly popular, with more than two billion cups of coffee poured each day worldwide.

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Can coffee treat diabetes? It can in mice with this synthetic genetic implant