Lightbulb made of modified E. coli fuses biology and electronics

It could soon be possible to make a light source out of bacteria.

So says a group of students from Newcastle University in the UK who are attempting to combine electronic engineering and synthetic biology to create “electro-biological” circuits.

The students have turned genetically modified, glowing E.coli into something analogous to a light bulb. The bulb is meant to switch on when the bacteria experience heat stress from a miniature microbial fuel cell – a device that acts as a battery by harnessing electrical energy from the action of microbes.

The project will debut in Boston this week at the International Genetically Engineered Machine competition (iGEM), an annual global competition that ends in a synthetic biology science fair called the Giant Jamboree. The eight-person team from Newcastle is just one of 300 teams from 40 countries.

To make their device, the Newcastle team designed E.coli that, due to the increased expression of a fluorescent gene, would glow when introduced to an electrical current or a heat source at 42 °C. They also designed a circuit to connect the bulb and the power source in the hopes of creating a kit that can snap together as easily as a Lego set.

Cat-powered turbine?

Although they failed to get the fuel cell to activate the lightbulb in the final round of testing, team member Ollie Burton says the main goal is to create a toolkit that will encourage others to build on the idea.

“Everything we have done is open source,” he says. “It’s more about what other people can do with the basis we’ve set, rather than design anything revolutionary ourselves. We wanted to provide people with the tools to generate new and exciting technologies.”

“Having analogous parts to electronics mirrored in biology will be advantageous because it offers new mediums to the engineering toolkit,” says Jameson Dungan, a synthetic biologist who runs the DIY lab Biologik in Norfolk, Virginia. He says that the project is “like when we first went from the vacuum tube to the transistor. The transistor did the same thing as the tube, just in a different way, just as these biological parts do with recreating electrical parts.”

The idea of open source research is an ethos biohackers and DIY scientists have long championed. For its part, iGEM also encourages lab-to-lab communication, and will be building a database of standardised, compatible “parts,” or sequences of DNA, for teams to use in their experiments.

Working with genetically modified organisms comes with a certain level of responsibility, however. The team made a digital, interactive “thought experiment” game to accompany their project, in which players are encouraged to consider ethical impacts of electro-biological science experiments. One scenario posits that a player must use genes from a cat to power a turbine, and asks, “What are our limits when it comes to using biologic materials as electricity?”

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