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Researchers Use Bacteria To Create “Living Neon Signs”

Bacteria: beautiful? Oh, yeah. Just look at what scientists at UCSD whipped up using massive colonies of E. coli:

What you’re watching are millions of bacterial cells bioengineered to flash off and on–and in unison–like blinking light bulbs. By attaching a fluorescent protein to the bacteria’s biological clock, researchers were able to create so-called “living neon signs,” including one that spells “UCSD.” (Go E. coli-tons, I mean, Tritons?)

But they’re more than just a novel (and totally geeky) way to show school spirit. The method has an important real-world application: It can be used to detect harmful amounts of poison. Bacteria are highly sensitive to various heavy-metal pollutants and disease-causing organisms. Program them to light up a certain way around toxins, and you get an instant visual of potential environmental hazards. Researchers have already developed a bacterial monitor that reacts to low levels of arsenic. When the bacteria senses arsenic, the oscillations of the cells’ blinking pattern diminish in frequency.

Sure, there are plenty of other pollution sensors out there. But they generally provide a one-off measurement, whereas bacteria can be used to “continuously monitor a given sample over long periods of time,” bio and bioengineering prof Jeff Hasty says. “Because the bacteria respond in different ways to different concentrations by varying the frequency of their blinking pattern, they can provide a continual update on how dangerous a toxin or pathogen is at any one time.” Besides, the other detectors don’t look nearly as pretty on your wall.

[Images courtesy of Jeff Hasty Lab, UC San Diego]

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