E. chromi: Living Colour from Bacteria

Project
2009

In collaboration with James King & the University of Cambridge iGEM 2009 team.

See also Limited Editions: E.chromi, The Scatalog.

E. chromi is an early collaboration between artists/designers and scientists in the emerging field of synthetic biology. In 2009, seven Cambridge University undergraduates spent the summer genetically engineering bacteria to secrete a variety of coloured pigments, visible to the naked eye. They designed standardised sequences of DNA, called BioBricks™, and inserted them into E. coli bacteria. Each BioBrick™ part contains genes from existing organisms, enabling the bacteria to produce a colour. By combining these with other BioBricks™, bacteria could be programmed to do tasks for humans. Their invention, which they called E. chromi, won the Grand Prize at the 2009 International Genetically Engineered Machine Competition (iGEM).

Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg and designer James King worked with the team, while they developed the technology in the lab. They explored different agendas, not necessarily all desirable, that could shape the use of a foundational technology like E. chromi and in turn, our everyday lives. The Scatalog imagines using it for cheap, personalised disease monitoring. Engineered bacteria, ingested in yoghurt, would colonise our gut, keeping watch for the chemical markers of diseases. If disease is detected, the bacteria produce an easy-to-read warning by colouring your poo. The Scatalog was made as a tool for critical discourse in synthetic biology and was first presented at iGEM in 2009. Since 2009, this critical fiction became a goal for synthetic biologists, with engineered probiotics now in testing.

The Scatalog.

E. coli expressing Violacein. Photo at Cambridge iGEM, 2009.

The Cambridge iGEM team with Tom Knight. Photo: iGEM/David Appleyard, 2009.

The Scatalog at Alive! Fondation EDF, 2013.

Appearances:

Permanent collection of the Museo Delle Scienze, Trento
Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo
Science Gallery, Dublin
Fondation EDF, Paris
Index Awards, Asia tour
MoMA, New York
The National Museum of China, Beijing
Design Museum, London
The Wellcome Trust, London
St Etienne Biennale Internationale Design, France

Nomination, Brit Insurance Designs of the Year, 2011
Finalist, Index Awards, 2011

Animation credits:

Design: Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg 
& James King

Animation: Cath Elliot 
(Little Giant Pictures)

Music: Matthew Irvine Brown

Illustration: Alice Hoult
Scatalog photography: Åsa Johannesson

The Scatalog.

E. coli expressing Violacein. Photo at Cambridge iGEM, 2009.

The Cambridge iGEM team with Tom Knight. Photo: iGEM/David Appleyard, 2009.

The Scatalog at Alive! Fondation EDF, 2013.