Field of Science

Idea Space

One of the things about working in a research lab, is that it's very easy to get lost in the little world that you're currently working in. Day to day research really is little-picture stuff; while you know that your work has bigger implications, and you drag them out the filing cabinet every time you want to write a grant application, you don't often have the time, or the inclination, to just sit down and think about where your work could go.

This is why scientists need friends. And I discovered over the summer that this especially applies to friends who are also art and design students. Because while you're busy squinting at gels and trying to convince yourself you have a band 2kb long they are getting excited at the fact that you have purple bacteria, actual purple bacteria, and they're thinking of all the amazing things you can do with that.

I'm still recovering from jet lag a little, so I'll try to put this in context just using pictures. This is what I see:
And this is what they see...

Scatalog picture from the E.chromi design team, more details here

Once you've stopped sniggering at the fact that it is a case of coloured poo, it starts to dawn that this is actually a very elegant system for searching for intestinal problems. taking bacteria that turn different colours in response to different conditions can result in a full spectrum (as it were) of the conditions in your stomach, just from looking at your poo. And doctors generally do look at poo to check how a patient is doing, this just gives a clearer picture.

And once you start thinking about it, there are a huge number of applications for coloured bacteria. Here's a few I've thought up over the course of the last few weeks:
  • Putting the colours into spores (e.g from B. subtilis) could give you little dots of colour: bacterial pixels
  • Industrial fermentors use bacteria and yeast. Adding conditional-dependant colours could allow you to check the conditions (i.e temperature, pH) without needing monitoring equipment, the bacteria just tell you themselves.
  • Bacterial pigments for the pigment industry in general, there is a whole range of different colours in nature, you could make them into paint/dyes/etc just with a fermentor.
  • Moving bacterial art. Bacteria swarm in the direction of food sources. Swarming coloured bacteria would be awesome, they'd look like that bit near the end of 2001:A Space Odyssey where he does the trippy planet landing.
  • And of course, environment monitoring. Get lead sensing bacteria, drop possibly-contaminated water on them, leave in the incubator overnight and if the thing turns bright red the water isn't safe. Easy, convenient, and potentially quite cheep.
There's probably many more, whole worlds of idea-space for potential applications. They're just a little hard to see when you're standing two inches away from a gel, squinting through an ethidium bromide visor.

This is a massive shoutout to the two design students (who know who they are!) who helped me and my fellow lab rats retain our sanity over the holidays. You took our humble experiments and took them in such wonderful, marvelous directions, and at the end of it all you managed to get a case of coloured poo past Heathrow Airport security. And to all design students anywhere who are working with science; trust me, we need you. :)


Captain Skellett said...

Wow, that case of mulitcoloured poo is pretty cool! Very pretty... especially for poo. I love your idea of moving bacteria art - I think that would be totally awesome! Start making it!!!

Anonymous said...

Wasn't it an iGEM project a few years back that made photosensitive bacteria work as a primitive black and white camera? There's obvious potential to combine the two to get colour images.

As for bacterial art, I think it would be fascinating to use a small number of diffusible signals, that affect both signal and pigment production in nearby bacteria, and see what emergent patterns you could develop. If you could break the pigment down again, you could attempt to run the Game of Life on, well, Life!

Lab Rat said...

It was work leading on from an iGEM project that produced the photographic bacteria:

And we did make the colours with the idea of colour photography in just would have taken too long to hook the light sensor up to the colour production, and I think that we would have had to find/make coloured light sensors as well.

Bobolino said...

Hello anonymous Lab-Rat, I'm a student at the Royal College of Art in Design Interactions (the same program as Daisy and James). I'd be really interested in discussing multicolored bacterial stuff with you for a project I'm working on.
If you have some time to spare, and would like to get in touch, my email in

hope to hear from you
thank you for the great blog!!