Ready for a piece of technology you can rampantly steal for NaNoWriMo? How about secretly encoded E. coli that glow and can be used to send messages? Researchers have developed a way of getting seven strains of the bacteria to fluoresce in seven different colors. You can use them to create a secret message that starts as an apparently empty petri dish - but grows into an encoded message after delivery. They've dubbed the system SPAM: Steganography by Printed Arrays of Microbes, and it only gets cooler from here.

A key part of cryptography is making sure only your intended recipient can read the message, right? So with SPAM, not only do you have a cypher associated with how the lights correspond with letters, but by tweaking different bacterial strains, or by modifying the bacterial replication speed, antibiotic resistance, and protein expression time they can alter the content and time of delivery.


The bacteria could change over time, expressing different colors or just stop glowing entirely, thus rendering the message only accurate for a specific time period.

For another great twist, look at this image. Using the cipher below, the SPAM message shows different translations depending on the growth media. When the source plate is grown on Ampicillin, it reads "this is a bioencoded message from the walt lab @ tufts university 2010." On kanamycin it says "you have used the wrong cipher and the message is gibberish." Finally, the third one on a non-selective growth plate produces nonsense using their writing system.


The process of setting the message involves printing it onto an agar plate from a bacterial broth, copying it onto a nitrocellulose or velvet membrane, which is then given to the recipient to stamp onto growth media and develop the message.

Now, once we figure out how to get this bacteria transmissible by disease vectors, we could be onto something really interesting. Secret messages sent by a cough, a kiss, or a handprint left on a doorknob.


Top photo by Monika Wisniewska via Shutterstock