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UCSD Scientists Build A Light Installation From Bacteria

E.coli is one of the most unexpected energy and light sources we’ve ever seen.
January 10, 2012, 10:35pm

In the “ultimate example of life imitating art,” a team of biologists and bioengineers at University of California San Diego (UCSD) have come up with a glowing pixel wall that is not inspired by bacteria, but actually formulated from the microorganisms.

The advanced bio student team at UCSD chose to work with the widespread E.coli bacteria, creating a living, glowing and responsive neon sign (seen in the video above). To do so, they didn't use use any gothic or Mary Shelley-like magic tricks, but instead gathered and applied their scientific knowledge of the bacteria, whose behavior has been widely examined over the last few decades.

The microscopic bacteria is already known to communicate via quorum sensing, exchanging molecules between members of its colony when put under certain exterior stimuli. The UCSD team genetically engineered large E.coli colonies incorporating a protein that triggers a fluorescent glow in the bacteria, which also makes them glow under command. Then they laid each of these colonies onto a microfluidic chip they call a "biopixel" and excited them, creating one of the weirdest and strangest energy sources we’ve ever seen. So far, we still don’t know what could be the possible applications of such a breakthrough, whether they be artistic, scientific or maybe industrial, but the performance itself is impressive.

This installation also makes us wonder if more artists will start to use biology as a medium, rather than just using biology as inspiration— like Luke Jerram‘s eerily gorgeous glass sculptures of the world’s most deadly viruses. A few months ago we wrote about Suzanne Lee’s BioCouture bomber jackets, made from fermented textiles and just last week we saw self-repairing shoes that mimic the properties of living organisms. So with LEDs, fabrics and man-made cells checked off the list, what other kinds of bio art will we be seeing next?