New Synthetic Bacteria Can Detect Air Pollution & Color-Code Your Poop
Daisy Ginsberg is an artist and designer currently exploring the frontiers of possibility in the emergent field of synthetic biology. She just gave what was by far one of my favorite talks at this year’s Poptech conference; she discussed the potential boons and pitfalls that products of synthetic biology may yield in coming years. To showcase the nascent field’s unpredictable future, she pointed to E. Chromi, a bacteria that she and a handful of Cambridge students genetically programmed to secrete colorful pigments when it comes into contact with designated toxins.
Think bacteria that could change color to expose contaminants in groundwater, air pollution in cloud cover — perhaps most strikingly, it can even change the color of your poop if it comes into contact with toxins in your digestive system. This great video details the genesis of the bacteria. Watch:
According to Ginsberg’s website,
seven Cambridge University undergraduates spent the summer genetically engineering bacteria to secrete a variety of coloured pigments, visible to the naked eye. They designed standardised sequences of DNA, known as BioBricks, and inserted them into E. coli bacteria. Each BioBrick part contains genes selected from existing organisms spanning the living kingdoms, enabling the bacteria to produce a colour: red, yellow, green, blue, brown or violet. By combining these with other BioBricks, bacteria could be programmed to do useful things, such as indicate whether drinking water is safe by turning red if they sense a toxin.
Ginsberg’s work is not limited to (bio)techno-optimism, however — she also takes pains to consider the slew of dangers inherent in the emergence of such a radical new technology. New bioterrorism concerns, patent issues, and corporate monopolies on genomes all cast long shadows over the potential of synthetic biology.
As she noted in her talk, it’s important for artists and designers to work to communicate how synthetic biology stands to shape our world — otherwise, we may barely notice these radical changes in our everyday lives until the day that Google starts making clouds turn red.