Image: Felix Moser

Bacteria have had some pretty great PR, recently. Thanks to lots of new research about their importance to our bodies, they’re not really seen as soulless microscopic murderers anymore. They’re colorful, misunderstood beings living together outside the spotlight, freeloading in our guts in exchange for favors. In other words, they’re artists.

Now they are, at least. A team of scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has been engineering E. coli bacteria to respond to red, blue, and green light. This means they can make color pictures just by shining light onto the bacteria.

That’s, uh, bacteria (Image: Felix Moser)

These photographs actually demonstrate some incredible synthetic biology in action. The researchers created and customized a system of 18 genes, broken into four parts: A light sensing gene to determine what color the bacteria should make, a “circuit” to process the signals, and a “resource allocator” which connects the circuits to the “actuator” that actually produces the pigment. The researchers created each of these pieces on their own and combined them together, according to the research published today in Nature Chemical Biology.

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The researchers pretty much just built a computer inside each bacterium that accepts light as an input and outputs a color.

Image: Felix Moser

This work started back in 2005, when Christopher Voigt’s team at MIT figured out how to get bacteria to respond to single colors of light to make black and white photographs. But aside from looking cool, there’s a practical use here. “Engineers are very good at projecting photons in a defined manner,” study author Felix Moser told Gizmodo. “This gives us a powerful tool to control gene expression in the bacteria very precisely but in space and time.”

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Think of it this way: Right now, the researchers are shining light onto bacteria to make color. But the output could potentially be other proteins or biological compounds, using E. coli like a 3D printer.

Image: Felix Moser

Moser didn’t think the market for bacterial art was huge, and said that the images are finicky—it can take a few tries to get them right. But there is at least one artist who might be interested in the development, Anicka Yi who is currently exhibiting bacterial art at New York’s Guggenheim Museum.

The real point of the research is to show off just how quickly synthetic biology is advancing.

Said Moser:“The bottom line is that this is a demonstration of how far synthetic biology has come in terms of engineering biological systems.”

[Nature Chemical Biology via New Scientist]