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Blinking bacteria trained in 'biopixel' displays

University researchers develop a system for fluorescent bacteria to work in unison and display light like a neon sign.

Biological circuitry at work: thousands of fluorescent bacteria can be assembled into one biopixel.
UC San Diego

To make a new kind of display, researchers have engineered bacteria to be brighter.

The University of California at San Diego last month detailed the latest advances toward making a lighting system powered by genetically engineered e. coli bacteria.

Bioengineers insert a protein that causes the bacteria to fluoresce. Assembled in colonies, these bacteria act as a light source, like the pixel on a screen. About 500 individual bacteria are assembled into colonies, or "biopixels."

Those biopixels were engineered as components in larger circuits to make a display with as many as 13,000 biopixels.

The hope is that these biological circuits can be used as sensors for pollutants or other hazardous materials. In its tests, biopixels were able to detect arsenic by blinking on and off in unison.

One of the biggest technical challenges is to coordinate blinking across so many individual bacteria. Researchers designed their microfluidic chips so that gas is passed between colonies to synchronize blinking.

In five years, the technology could be used for a long-lasting and cheap environmental sensor, said Jeff Hasty, a professor at UC San Diego's Division of Biological Sciences and BioCircuits Institute who headed the research. "These kinds of living sensors are intriguing as they can serve to continuously monitor a given sample over long periods of time, whereas most detection kits are used for a one-time measurement," Hasty said in a statement.