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Biopixels: bioluminescent bacteria at work

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Biologists and bioengineers at the University of California San Diego have created bioluminescent "biopixels" using genetically modified bacteria, a phenomenon called "quorum sensing," and a specially-designed microfluidic chip.


We’ve been talking a lot about OLEDs over the past couple of days, what with the upcoming unveiling of LG’s (and likely Samsung’s) 55-inch panels at CES. But OLED still needs old-fashioned electricity to emit light. Not so for "biopixels", the creation of a group of biologists and bioengineers at the University of California San Diego. Each pixel is composed of a colony of bioluminescent E. coli bacteria, and while we’re probably not going to see bacteria TV sets, the group hopes to use the technology to make biological sensors for toxins like arsenic.

The idea starts with a bioluminescent protein that's connected to the biological clocks of the individual bacteria cells. Next, a phenomenon called quorum sensing makes an entire colony of the bacteria pulsate in sync. Finally, multiple colonies are synced up with one another using a specially-designed microfluidic chip that allows separate colonies to share a single gas signal. One chip, which is about the size of a paperclip, holds 50–60 million bacteria and can display about 13,000 biopixels, or a little more than half a Game Boy screen.