E. chromi: Designer Bacteria for Color-Coded Disease Detection

Illustration for article titled E. chromi: Designer Bacteria for Color-Coded Disease Detection

The future of personalized medicine will be the result of a cross-pollination between design and engineering.

Last year, I had the pleasure of profiling the extraordinary artist Daisy Ginsberg for Wired UK. (We also shared a crazy New York adventure that involved a Russian homeless man with Cheetos in his beard and anterograde amnesia.) I called Ginsberg a "postmodern Michelangelo" - and she very much is one, working at the fascinating intersection of design and research as she explores the bleeding edge of art and science, particularly the field of synthetic biology.

Photo by Leon Csernohlavek

E.chromi is one of Ginsburg's most notable projects - an ambitious collaboration in which she and designer James King partnered with seven Cambridge University biology undergraduates to develop a designer strain of bacteria capable of detecting and notifying you of the concentration of pollutants in water by secreting colors visible to the naked eye. The team designed standardized sequences of DNA called BioBricks, each containing genes from existing organisms capable of producing color, and inserted them into E. coli bacteria.


The project won MIT's International Genetically Engineered Machine Competition in 2009 and the film about it recently won the best documentary award at Bio:Fiction, the world's first synthetic biology film festival.

Says Ginsberg:

Synthetic biology is promising to change the world, from sustainable fuel to tumor-killing bacteria. But personally I'm skeptical about how we should use it - just because we can do it doesn't mean we should.


What makes E.chromi most fascinating are its diverse and tremendously valuable real-life applications, from testing groundwater for arsenic to producing natural, chemical-free colorings and dyes for food and textiles to personalized disease monitoring via custom probiotic yogurt.

Hat tip: Open Culture

Illustration for article titled E. chromi: Designer Bacteria for Color-Coded Disease Detection

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I came here ready to pooh-pooh this article for being overly optimistic and unrealistic about the potential of this research, but this is actually a pretty good take on the E. chromi project. Basically, the team prepared genes which can be triggered by standard BioBricks parts and which produce various human-visible pigments (as in, they don't require a fluorescence microscope to see). While they didn't do anything on the "detecting stuff" end of things, there are other BioBrick components which perform many of those tasks, and theoretically they can be hooked together like the Lego bricks that "BioBricks" are named after.