Synthetic Biology: Engineering Open-Source Software with DNA

What if I told you that you can tell the state of your health by color-coded poo? Seriously, this is an initial application for a technology with very high potential.

Concept: What is synthetic biology?

First, a little bit of background. Synthetic biology is a new area which combines  biological research with science and engineering. Among its most innovative and controversial uses is the manipulation of DNA to create organisms, food, drugs, etc. But now engineers want to share this DNA code as open-source software, for everyone to play with nature’s design. If you watch the first video, you will understand this revolutionary concept.

Application: Find Out your Health with Color-Coded Poo

Taking this into consideration, designers Daisy Ginsberg and James King and their scientist colleagues at Cambridge University created a project called E.Chromi, which turns e.coli bacteria into living, color-coded sensors that can be “programmed” to secrete an array of bright hues in the presence of certain chemicals. In the future, E.Chromi could live in your gut and give you an early-warning signal for an oncoming illness by turning your poop blue. The Cambridge team accomplished this feat by designing an array of standardized DNA building blocks called BioBricks. Scientists and genetic engineers can “snap” these BioBricks together in simple patterns, insert them into simple microorganisms like e.coli, and turn them into tiny machines. In this way, bacteria could be programmed to do useful things, such as indicate whether drinking water is safe by turning red if they sense a toxin. The E.Chromi BioBricks are open-source and listed in a genetic “parts database” run by MIT.


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E. chromi won the Grand Prize at the 2009 International Genetically Engineered Machine Competition and was nominated for a 2011 Brit Insurance Design of the Year Award. Daisy Ginsberg is currently working as a Design Fellow at Synthetic Aesthetics, a multidisciplinary research project by the University of Edinburgh and Stanford University that joins designers with scientists.