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Bacteria Manipulated Into Snapshots

November 26, 2005|Alex Raksin | Times Staff Writer

As part of a contest to demonstrate innovative uses for genetically engineered organisms, graduate students in California and Texas have produced "living photographs" from sheets of bacteria growing in a petri dish.

The team engineered the intestinal bacterium Escherichia coli with two key mutations: one that causes it to produce a black pigment and the second that shuts down production of the pigment when the bacteria are exposed to light.

When an image from a 35 mm slide or other source is focused on the surface of the dish for a couple of hours, the bacteria respond to produce a permanent high-resolution copy, according to a report published in the current issue of the journal Nature.

"Our living photographs are a somewhat playful example of how devices quite useful to technology and medicine can be created in the new field of synthetic biology," said pharmaceutical chemist Christopher A. Voigt of UC San Francisco.

Graduate student Anselm Levskaya in Voigt's lab designed and constructed the modified E. coli, and students from the University of Texas figured out how to take the pictures.

"We estimate that the resolution of these photographs is about 100 megapixels, or about 10 times better than high-resolution printers," Voigt said.

Though living photographs might have limited applications, the technology could have other uses.

If the bacteria produced plastic or metals instead of pigment, for example, the technology could by used to produce complicated parts that would be difficult to manufacture otherwise, Voigt said.

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