Genetically Modified Bacteria Produce Living Photographs

Joab Jackson
for National Geographic News
December 6, 2005

Hold still and say, E. coli.

In an unusual proof-of-concept display, researchers have developed a way to create photographs with living bacteria.

The results are not only much sharper than what can be produced with a photo printer, but also point the way to a new industry—building useful objects from living organisms.

According to the researchers, this biological film is an early success for an emerging field known as synthetic biology, the science of making simple organisms that can exhibit predetermined behaviors.

"The photograph was mainly a cute parlor trick, [but it provided] a demonstration of our ability to use these things," said Anselm Levskaya, a biophysics graduate student at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), who worked on the project.

Researchers at UCSF collaborated with colleagues at the University of Texas at Austin to create the living photos. They described their work in the November 24 issue of the science journal Nature.

Seeing the Light

Nondigital photographs are made by momentarily exposing light-sensitive film, then processing the film to capture the image, which is transfered with light onto chemically treated paper.

In the new approach, E. coli bacteria that have been genetically modified to react to light record the image.

University of Texas students first concocted the idea as an entry in a genetic engineering contest held by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

To complete the job, the students needed a light-sensitive living substance. By coincidence, their faculty advisor Edward Marcotte had recently met Chris Voigt, an assistant professor of pharmaceutical chemistry at UCSF, who had been working on such a product using E. coli.

Genetic researchers frequently use E. coli because the bacteria grow quickly in the lab. In nature E. coli typically reside in the intestines of people and other animals. The bacteria do not sense light.

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