Synthetic Biology on E. Coli

A Biological Color Wheel: diseases can be identified based on their color secreted in the body by these engineered bacteria

A Biological Color Wheel: diseases can be identified based on their color secreted in the body by these engineered bacteria
Source: Drew Endy, Stanford bioengineering


Seven students at Cambridge University are developing a rainbow of E. coli that could change how diagnostics are made in medicine.

These students genetically engineered bacteria to secrete a variety of different colored pigments, visible to the naked eye. The pigments were given to artists and designers at the Royal College of Art, who then made a probiotic, E. Chromi, which contain genetically encoded sensors for different diseases. The bacteria would be different colors depending on the health of one’s gut, and the color would determine which doctor a patient would need to see for care.

Despite its recent development, this technology will not be available to the open market until 2049. However, this provides an example of how medicine can be expanded and how biology can be instrumented as diagnostics for people, regardless of where in the world they may be from. By giving designers and artists biological materials with which they can experiment, new perspectives can be provided on developing technologies, making advancements never imagined before.


Synthetic Biology on Cheese

You know that phrase, “you are what you eat?” Well synthetic biology doesn’t think this is the case. Researchers are attempting to make us believe that we eat what we are.

To make cheese, you need two main ingredients: milk and bacteria. What if we could use the bacteria found on the human body as the ingredient to make cheese? Harvard PhD student Christina Agapakis and local artist Sissel Tolaas are taking the popular food and reimagining it from the perspective of synthetic biology. They write “Many of the stinkiest cheeses are hosts to species of bacteria closely related to the bacteria responsible for the characteristic smells of human armpits or feet.”

The two women took samples of their colleagues’ bacteria and cultured it in milk, creating individual cheeses that, yes, are edible. According to Drew Endy, one of the few brave colleagues who sample the cheese, they turned out to be rather delicious, citing the Sissel nose cheese as being particularly memorable.


The cheese created by Agapakis and Tolaas. Yes, they are edible.

The cheese created by Agapakis and Tolaas. Yes, they are edible.

Synthetic Biology on Chairs

Can we grow our furniture? What if we could change how we perceive and experience life? Synthetic biologists and designers are working on changing what we perceive to be proper building materials. Using sawdust and wood fungus, they’ve engineered a way to create all kinds of furniture, including chairs.

At a farm in Monterrey, they are taking piles of sawdust, given to them for free, and are growing mushrooms out of the wood fungus grown over time. This farm then gave this wood fungus to Phil Ross, a San Francisco-based artist to use wood fungus as a medium for new kinds of art.

By taking the dry slurry of sawdust and letting it sit for about 72 hours, the sawdust grows into a solid block of fungus. Ross then creates a mold for an object he would like to make, fills it with sawdust, and inoculates it with wood fungus. The filled mold Is then baked to sterilize it, and voila! He has grown a chair!

This provides another example of how synthetic biology can change our thoughts on what is a material appropriate for different purposes.

Source: Drew Endy, bioengineering professor at Stanford

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Fungal chair constructed by Phil Ross

Synthetic Biology on Living Bridges

What if the Golden Gate Bridge was actually grown from nature? Would you still drive your car across it, let alone walk across it? People are doing just that in Cherrapunji, India on the living root bridges in the region.

These living bridges are made from the roots of the Ficus elastic tree. This tree produces a series of secondary roots high up on its trunk and can comfortably perch atop huge boulders along riverbanks, or even the rivers themselves. Some of these bridges span over one hundred feet long and often take between ten and fifteen years to become fully functional. However, they’re extremely strong, so strong that they can support the weight of fifty or more people at a time.

In addition to providing a physical service to humans, they also serve as living plants, fixing carbon over time, serving an environmental benefit as well. Synthetic biologists are hoping this natural wonder can inspire synthetic work of engineering in the future.

 Source: Drew Endy, bioengineering professor at Stanford

This bridge, believed to be the only of its kind, is actually two bridges stacked one over the other and has come to be known as the “Umshiang Double-Decker Root Bridge

Synthetic Biology on Biosecurity

One of the main aims of synthetic biology is to make it easier to engineer. As this field becomes more and more advanced, people will begin to have the skills to engineer biology for good or, in this case, evil. People outside the scientific community could easily create self-replicating bioweapons that could kill mass amounts of people at a time.

An example of this frightening possibility is the research being conducted at the Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam, seeking to discover how likely it is that the “bird flu” virus might mutate into a highly transmissible pandemic. So far this bird flu has infected 600 humans and killed over half of them. This fatality rate could be tragic if it were to be mass-produced and used as a biological weapon. These scientists are being asked by an American federal advisory board to omit the details in their research documenting the recipe for this flu in their publication of research in order to prevent terrorists from figuring out how to produce this pathogen.

There are certainly benefits in doing research on viruses. However, the consequences humanity may face by irresponsibly sharing their findings may cause more harm than expected.

Source: New York Times, “An Engineered Doomsday”