Biofuels Tufts University researchers create fluroescent bacteria that can create coded messages, signs or art

Published on October 8th, 2011 | by Tina Casey


Arty E. Coli Bacteria Create Sustainable Ink

October 8th, 2011 by  

Tufts University researchers create fluroescent bacteria that can create coded messages, signs or artThe notorious E. coli bacteria, renowned as a source of food poisoning, has lately been undergoing something of a rehabilitation tour. Various strains of E. coli are being developed to make sustainable biofuels or convert sunlight into usable energy, and in the latest example, a team of chemists from Tufts University in Massachusetts has engineered new strains of fluorescent E. coli bacteria. These strains can grow into colorful pattens that could form coded messages, signs, or works of art, reducing the need for inks or paints based on petroleum products and toxic chemicals.

Glow-in-the-Dark E. Coli

The Tufts research, lead by chemistry professor David R. Walt, resulted in the creation of seven new strains of bacteria that display different fluorescent colors. Like any color code, the bacteria can be arranged in different sequences to represent letters, numbers, and punctuation. The tricky part is to get each strain to stay in a discrete area. The team solved that by using a microtiter, which is a slim tray that has a grid of small wells or depressions arrayed on its surface, each of which can hold a microscopic amount of bacteria.

Self-Assembling Art from Bacteria

The process of making “art” from the bacteria is fairly straightforward. After the different strains are arranged in a pattern on the microtiter, the whole array can be transferred to a membrane. The membrane is a neutral environment (the team used nitrocellulose, which movie buffs may recall as the highly flammable ingredient in old film), which preserves the bacteria without enabling them to divide, so the array can be shipped or stored if needed. When it’s ready for use, the array is transferred to a growth medium, and the colonies grow large enough to become visible.

From E. coli to Cryptography

A skilled cryptographer could easily crack a dotted color code, but since bacteria are living organisms there are a few twists that would make an E. coli code more difficult to pick apart. While still on the membrane the sequence is invisible, so the decoder would have to know where to find it and then expose it to an appropriate growth medium. Also, with some additional engineering the fluorescent properties of the bacteria can be made to lie dormant, and the message will not appear until a specified period of time passes, or until they are exposed to a certain chemical.

Antibiotics can provide another layer of encryption. An array can be made with bacteria that are immune to different antibiotics, so that exposure to one antibiotic will preserve some parts of the array but not others. With this method, more than one message can be sent in the same array.

Additional twists can be added by using strains of bacteria that reveal their fluorescence when exposed to different wavelengths of light. Future plans include engineering strains that will die off after a specified time, adding a new twist to the famous line, “This tape will self destruct in five seconds.”

Bacteria and Sustainability

E. coli is not the only bacteria marking out its place in a more sustainable future. Researchers are developing bacteria that can convert old newspapers to biofuel, produce valuable fuels and chemicals out of waste from biofuel refineries, generate electricity, and help plants suck copper and other contaminants out of soil. A living E. coli ink or paint is a long way from commercial development, but the Tufts researchers envision that in the future it could be used for bar codes, counterfeit prevention, or of course, the secret transmission of messages.

Image: Fluorescent straws by Spacepleb on

Twitter: @TinaMCasey 
Get CleanTechnica’s 1st (completely free) electric car report → “Electric Cars: What Early Adopters & First Followers Want.”
Keep up to date with all the hottest cleantech news by subscribing to our (free) cleantech newsletter, or keep an eye on sector-specific news by getting our (also free) solar energy newsletter, electric vehicle newsletter, or wind energy newsletter.


Tags: , , , , ,

About the Author

specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.

Back to Top ↑
  • Advertisements

  • Top Posts & Pages

  • Cool Cleantech Events

    Low Voltage Electrification Event, April 25-27. Detroit, Michigan (US)
    Delve deep into the benefits and challenges associated with EV power supply.

    Offshore Wind Market Development USA, May 11-12, Boston, Massachusetts (US)
    Network and establish your business in one of North America’s largest energy industries.

    Energy Storage USA, June 15-16, San Diego, California (US)
    Only event in the United States focused exclusively on the commercialization of storage.

    More details are on: Cleantech Events.

  • Advertisement

  • CleanTechnica Electric Car Report

    Electric Cars Early Adopters First Followers
  • Tesla Model 3 Review by EVANNEX

    Tesla Model 3 Review from EVANNEX
  • Tesla Model 3 Exclusive Video

    Tesla Model 3 Video
  • Tesla Model 3 Exclusive Pictures

    Tesla Model 3 Video
  • Tesla Model X Review #1 (Video)

    Tesla Model X Review from new owners Zach Shahan
  • Tesla Model X Review #2 (Pictures)

    Tesla Model X Review from Kyle Field
  • Tesla Model S Long-Term Review

    Tesla Model S Long Term Review from Kyle Field
  • Nissan LEAF Long-Term Review

    Nissan LEAF Long Term Review from Cynthia Shahan
  • Interview with Michael Liebreich

    Interview with Michael Liebreich
  • Interview with Akon (Teslas & Solar)

    Interview with Akon Tesla Model S Tesla Model X Solar Power Africa
  • Interview with Dr Nawal Al-Hosany

    Interview with Dr Nawal Al-Hosany
  • Interview with Gro Brundtland

    Gro Brundtland
  • Interview with President of Iceland

    President of Iceland Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson
  • Interview with Nick Sampson

    Faraday Future VP Nick Sampson
  • Interview with Dipal Barua

    Dipal Barua 1st ZFEP WInner
  • Interview with Jonathon Porritt

    Jonathon Porritt
  • Interview with Clint Wilder

    Interview with Clint Wilder
  • Interviews with Solar Impulse Pilots

    Bertrand Piccard Andre Borschberg
  • Check out more CleanTechnica Videos.

  • Join The Solar Revolution!

    Edison-solar-energy solar-energy-spill-nice-day
  • Cost of Solar Panels

  • Search the IM Network