• 888-778-6481

    Genetically engineered bacteria sense and respond to different colors of light

    MIT researchers, led by biological engineer Christopher Voigt, engineered bacterial cultures to produce black-and-white photo negatives mirroring patterns of light projected onto the dish more than a decade ago. Augmenting the cells to sense light and produce black pigment in response required only four genes. Now wielding a suite of 18 genes, Voigt’s team has created a microbial color palate that can paint a fruit still life, a geometric lizard motif, and a leaping Super Mario. The results appear in Nature Chemical Biology on May 22.

    “We think of it as sort of ‘disco bacteria,’” Voigt said. “You can imagine different light flashing depending on what the cells need to do.”

    To engineer bacteria that react to certain wavelengths of light by producing a particular pigment, Voigt’s team leveraged several cutting-edge pieces of technology, including optogenetic laser light sensors, CRISPR-based gene-expression control, and the lab’s very own bacterial programming language. The result was a microscopic Rube Goldberg machine, which sprang into action when the researchers shined colored light onto one of their engineered E. coli cells.

    Wavelength-specific light sensor molecules studding the surface of the cell switched on, activating dedicated genetic circuitry that ultimately spit out a desired product. In this “photography” experiment, the products were pigment molecules of the same color as the light input—red, green, or blue—which caused the bacterial photo paper to mimic the image projected upon it.

    The utility of the system goes beyond making pretty pictures. Light is useful for directing bacterial activity because, unlike chemical signals, light can be used remotely, it’s easy to turn off, and it offers tight spatial and temporal control, Voigt said. “You just wouldn’t be able to do that with chemicals,” he said. “It would be very expensive and just technically challenging.”

    Voigt said his team designed this project almost like they were putting together a Lego Mindstorms kit. Like the popular robotic building toy, Voigt’s system is composed of many modular pieces of technology that work together to produce behavior, but unlike Legos, assembly was not trivial.

    One of the next challenges is expanding this color-controlled bacterial production system from the planar culture dish to the 3D world. Voigt’s group is already working toward this goal by marrying 3D printing with the system laid out in their most recent paper. Under this mechanical-biological collaboration, the arm of a traditional 3D printer would control the higher-order structure of the output while at the same time bursts of colored light would instruct the engineered bacteria which material—metal, protein, plastic, etc.—to lay down.

    For Julius Lucks, a bioengineer at Northwestern University, Voigt’s system shows promise as a broadly-applicable tool for understanding and controlling gene expression in a temporally-precise and noninvasive way.

    “We can do a million things with light,” Lucks said. “Here the big thing is having three wavelengths of light. That’s a lot of knobs.”

    J. Fernandez-Rodriguez et al.,Engineering RGB color vision into Escherichia coli,” doi:10.1038/nchembio.2390, Nature Chemical Biology, 2017