Send secret messages with genetically-engineered bacteria

Researchers at Tufts University encoded messages in E. coli using fluorescent bacteria.
Written by Boonsri Dickinson, Contributing Editor

Well, hiding messages in biological organisms is one way to encrypt top secret messages. Scientists at Tufts University report that they were able to encode E. coli messages in a dish full of genetically-modified organisms that may one day transmit information, according to New Scientist.

It's not like spies will be sending messages via genetically engineered bacteria anytime soon. Although, it's possible that in the future these biological organisms can provide an extra layer of security for building access. For example, instead of swiping your card, you can look at the security scanner with your eyes, so it can know for sure that it is you trying to gain access to the building.

"You can think of all sorts of secret spy applications," David Walt, a chemist at Tufts University. told New Scientist.

By encrypting biological life, the researchers showed that it's possible to grow a collection of E. coli strains that had been modified with fluorescent proteins, which glowed in seven colors. The bugs are grown on a plate, so it can be tailored to specific applications.

The authors wrote, "This work demonstrates the use of biological systems to store and deliver information and, is a unique example of using phenotypic characteristics of living organisms to carry and deliver an alphanumeric message." In other words, it may be a good way to send encrypted information.

The challenge though, is that it can't store that much information. The researchers would have to print smaller features to account for this limitation.

This initial batch was a proof-of-concept. The researchers plan to use more robust microorganisms such as yeast or Gram-positive bacteria. In the future, it's not far fetched to make the bacteria self-destruct by making sure its fluorescent properties disappear.

Researchers have shown that biological encryption has been done before with a DNA synthesizer.

The skeptics wonder: So why not just send out an encrypted email?

via New Scientist

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

Editorial standards