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Radio waves can alter bacteria to create life-saving medicines

Researchers from Australia and the United States have developed a new technique that significantly enhances the efficiency of altering the DNA in bacteria, crucial for producing essential medicines like insulin. This method, utilizing high-frequency radio waves, presents a much gentler alternative to the traditional industry practices of employing harsh chemicals or high temperatures for DNA insertion, resulting in a higher survival rate of the modified cells.

Advancement in genetic engineering

Conducted by RMIT University in partnership with other Australian institutions and WaveCyte Biotechnologies in the US, the study leveraged 18 gigahertz radio waves to temporarily “open the gates” in E. coli bacterial cell walls, enabling the introduction of genetic material without harming the cells. 

The successful incorporation of DNA into the cells and their continued healthy functioning post-modification marks a significant advancement in genetic engineering.

Bacterial cell permeability

This method’s potential was further highlighted by the collaboration with the Australian Center for Electromagnetic Bioeffects Research, which had previously shown how high-frequency electromagnetic energy could increase bacterial cell permeability temporarily.

“Our novel, cost-effective method is shown to be highly efficient, but also gentler on the cells as no harsh chemicals or high temperatures are used in this process,” said lead author Elena Ivanova, an expert in nanobiotechnology at RMIT, emphasizing the technique’s superiority in terms of both efficiency and gentleness compared to existing methods.

Broader implications 

The research’s implications extend beyond the immediate benefits of a more effective DNA insertion technique, hinting at potential applications in a wide range of drug delivery systems, microbiome therapeutics, and synthetic biology. 

With RMIT applying for intellectual property protection in collaboration with WaveCyte Biotechnologies, and the continued commitment to advancing this technology, this discovery holds promise for significantly impacting the fields of cell and gene therapy.

“This gentle and highly efficient method holds immense promise for enhancing the affordability and accessibility of critical therapies,” said WaveCyte CEO Steve Wanjara. “We continue to actively work towards translating these findings into tangible applications, focusing on optimizing the technique for mammalian cells. This research has the potential to positively impact millions of lives across the globe, and we are dedicated to making it a reality.” 

New life-saving treatments 

Reflecting on the development of this application, first author Tharushi Perera from RMIT and Swinburne University of Technology noted the satisfaction in uncovering beneficial uses of high-frequency electromagnetic energy, countering common misconceptions and opening doors to new life-saving treatments.

“People hear electromagnetic energy and 5G and think it’s bad – possibly due to misinformation or lack of understanding – but, as we have shown here, there are actually beneficial applications. My hope is that this can open the door to new life-saving treatments in the long run and look forward to seeing its development,” she concluded. 

High-frequency electromagnetic energy

High-frequency electromagnetic energy encompasses a broad range of electromagnetic waves, including those on the upper end of the electromagnetic spectrum such as X-rays and gamma rays, as well as higher-frequency ultraviolet (UV) light, microwaves, and radio waves. This form of energy is characterized by its high frequency and, correspondingly, short wavelength.

At the core of high-frequency electromagnetic energy is its ability to carry more energy compared to lower-frequency electromagnetic waves, like those used in radio or television broadcasting. This is because the energy of an electromagnetic wave is directly proportional to its frequency. The higher the frequency, the more energy the wave carries.


One of the most notable properties of high-frequency electromagnetic energy is its interaction with matter. For example, X-rays can penetrate soft tissue but are absorbed by denser materials like bone, making them invaluable in medical imaging. 

UV light

Similarly, ultraviolet light has enough energy to cause chemical reactions, which is both good and bad. It is used in processes like sterilization and photolithography for making electronic circuits, but it can also cause skin damage and increase the risk of skin cancer.


Microwaves, which are on the lower end of the high-frequency spectrum, have the ability to cause water molecules in food to vibrate, producing heat and making them useful in microwave ovens. 

Radio waves 

On the communication front, high-frequency radio waves, including those used in cellular networks and satellite communications, have the advantage of carrying large amounts of data over long distances, although their propagation characteristics can be affected by obstacles and the atmosphere.

Various uses

The application of high-frequency electromagnetic energy spans across various fields, from medical diagnostics and treatment to telecommunications, manufacturing, and research. 

Health risks

Despite its numerous benefits, the use of high-frequency electromagnetic waves must be carefully managed due to potential health risks associated with exposure to certain types of this energy, highlighting the importance of understanding both its capabilities and limitations.

The study is published in the journal Nano Letters.

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