Medical Research Council - London Institute of Medical Sciences

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20 September 2012

Social Sensors

“Justin Bieber’s getting married,” you might tell your housemate, who then puts a message on Twitter. Soon hundreds of homes around the world are alive with Bieber fever. In these videos, synthetic biologists have harnessed the power of rapid communication to build a living machine. These growing bacteria cells have been genetically engineered to emit light. Each burst of light is accompanied by chemical ‘messages’ encouraging nearby cells to flash in time. After 400 minutes, the 2.5 million cells in all 500 neighbouring compartments are flashing perfectly together. Like angry tweeters, the bacteria now react as a group to slight changes in their environment, sensing new chemical messages – added at 900 and 1600 minutes here – which slow the flashing down. In the future, tiny bacterial circuits (this one measures just 5mm across) might be used as sensors for all sorts of things, such as fluctuating toxin levels in the bloodstream.

Written by John Ankers

Published in Nature 463, 326-330

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