Their work is published in this week's issue of Nature (Nov. 24, 2005), which is devoted entirely to the emerging field of synthetic biology.
The students produced the innovative bacterial images and a bacterial camera as part of MIT's intercollegiate Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition, which encourages students to build simple biological machines.
"The goal of the contest was to build bacteria that could do very simple computing," says Dr. Edward Marcotte, one of the students' faculty advisers and associate professor of biochemistry at The University of Texas at Austin. "This is a great example of the emergent field of synthetic biology--using principles of engineering in biology."
"We're making bacteria that are all independently functioning computers and we can get them to do large-scale, complex computations like make images or create circuits," says Jeff Tabor, a doctoral student at the Institute for Cell and Molecular Biology in Austin.
The students produced ghostlike, living photos of many things, including themselves, their advisers and The University of Texas Tower.
The bacterial photos were created by projecting light on "biological film"--billions of genetically engineered E. coli growing in dishes of agar, a standard jello-like growth medium for bacteria.
Like pixels on a computer screen switching between white and black, each bacterium either produced black pigment or didn't, based on whether it was growing in a light or dark place in the dish. The resulting images are a collection of all the bacteria responding to the pattern of light.
E. coli are found naturally in the dark confines of the human gut and wouldn't normally sense light, so the students had to engineer the unicell
Contact: Edward Marcotte
University of Texas at Austin