(Video courtesy of the University of Calfornia, San Diego)
Synthetic biology sounds like it involves a level of artificiality, or at least engineered artifice. For some UCSD bioengineers it could be said to border on art itself, as researchers from the BioCircuitry Institute create a bright, pulsating show of synchronized bacterial luminescence. But the point is not merely to dazzle visually: these bacterial colonies (made up of millions of e. coli) are also sensitive biosensors that may soon be able to monitor water sources for ongoing contamination. The bioscience research of engineering living biological tools to respond to substances like arsenic may be a synthetic process, but it's synergistic as well, gets whole colonies of cells to communicate and identify biological threats.
Physicist-turned-molecular/computational biologist Jeff Hasty led the research that has just been published in the online early edition of the journal Nature. The graduate students in his Biodynamics Laboratory designed the microfluidic chips that hold the bacterial colonies (several million per chip).
Each of the blinking bacterial colonies comprise what the researchers call a biopixel, an individual point of light much like the pixels on a computer monitor or television screen. The larger microfluidic chips (about the size of a paper clip, see photo at right) contain about 13,000 biopixels, while smaller chips contain about 500 pixels. What causes the bacteria to fluoresce is a protein the researchers have attached to it. The synchronization within a colony is called quorum sensing, and it's how many kinds of bacteria communicate. Communication between colonies within a chip is effected by a gas the cells emit. Like other lab-on-a-chip technologies, the simple, compact, and self-contained chips promise accurate, inexpensive results in the field. In this case, results are in the form of patterns of luminescence.
Dr. Hasty says of his and his colleagues' bioscience/biocircuitry research:
These kinds of living sensors are intriguing as they can serve to continuously monitor a given sample over long periods of time, whereas most detection kits are used for a one-time measurement. Because the bacteria respond in different ways to different concentrations by varying the frequency of their blinking pattern, they can provide a continual update on how dangerous a toxin or pathogen is at any one time.
If you are a life science researcher, purchasing agent, lab manager, or other biotech scientist in the San Diego area, Biotechnology Calendar Inc. invites you to meet and network with top-tier laboratory equipment supply and service professionals at our next San Diego Biotechnology Vendor Showcase exposition being held on February 9, 2012. This event, now going into its 19th year, is held twice-annually on the UCSD campus and includes seminars, catered buffet lunch, and excellent opportunities to explore and discuss the latest in laboratory technologies. See our complete 2012 nationwide calendar here.
If you are interested in exhibiting at this event, click the button below for show info and a one-page report on funding and research at UCSD: