Engineered E. coli bacteria can now trace the outline of an image on an agar plate in a feat that shows how manipulating small organisms could lead to synthetic biological devices useful to technology and medicine.
“It looks like a pen came in and traced the outline of the image,” said Jeff Tabor, a scientist at the University of California, San Francisco who helped genetically engineer the E. coli bacteria.
Tabor says getting bacteria to trace images was “significantly more complicated” than their original project, which was to create black and white photograph-like images with bacteria for the annual iGEM competition at MIT.
The complexity of this new task could pave the way to new, sophisticated chemical and environmental sensors.
Creating an image with bacteria is relatively simple. Genes that respond to the absence of light are injected into the E. coli. When they don’t detect light, they produce a black pigment. If the bacteria do sense light they remain translucent. The human eye detects light in a similar manner, responding not to the light itself, but to the absence of light.
Using this technique, Tabor and his colleagues at UCSF and the University of Texas, Austen created ghostly pictures of squid and people in 2005. The images were a very high resolution, with each bacteria representing one pixel.
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