Bacteria engineered to produce living, full-colour photographs

New paint-by-light process could help manufacture vital drugs, antibodies and materials

Original source: New Scientist

Blind gut bacteria have received the gift of colour vision – of sorts. The organisms can use their new skill to make living photocopies of pictures shone onto their colony.

Christopher Voigt at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology began producing bacterial “photocopies” 12 years ago. At that point, however, they could generate only black-and-white images.

To enable Escherichia coli bacteria to register colour, Voigt’s team inserted genes into them that respond exclusively to either red, green or blue light. When activated by the relevant light colour, these genes feed signals to other added genes that then produce visible pigment of an identical colour.

When a colourful image is shone onto a thin, film-like bacterial colony, the cells change colour to match the light striking them (Nature Chemical Biology, DOI: 10.1038/nchembio.2390).

The technology could have practical applications. For example, it might allow engineers to use light to gain finer control of the bacteria grown in fermenters, which churn out vital drugs, antibodies and materials.