Light-controlled, genetically engineered bacteria have potential for labs-on-a-chip

Controlling bacteria could make it possible to use them as microbricks for building the next generation of microscopic devices.

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Scientists at Rome University (Rome, Italy) used light to control the swimming speed of genetically modified Escherichia coli (E. coli) bacteria and direct them to form different shapes. Controlling bacteria in this way means it could be possible to use them as microbricks for building the next generation of microscopic devices. For example, they could be made to surround a larger object such as a machine part or a drug carrier, and then used as living propellers to transport it where it is needed.

Related: Super-resolution microscopy shows how proteins in E. coli bacteria disassemble

E. coli bacteria can move a distance of 10X their length in one second, as they have propellers that are powered by a motor and they usually recharge this motor by a process that needs oxygen. Recently, the scientists found a protein (proteorhodopsin) in ocean-dwelling bacteria that allows them to power their propellers using light. By engineering other types of bacteria to have this protein, it is possible to place a "solar panel" on every bacterial cell and control its swimming speed remotely with light.

"Much like pedestrians who slow down their walking speed when they encounter a crowd, or cars that are stuck in traffic, swimming bacteria will spend more time in slower regions than in faster ones," explains lead author Giacomo Frangipane, a postdoctoral scientist at Rome University. "We wanted to exploit this phenomenon to see if we could shape the concentration of bacteria using light."

To do this, Frangipane and his team sent light from a projector through a microscope lens, shaping the light with high resolution, and explored how E. coli bacteria alter their speed while swimming through regions with varying degrees of illumination.

They projected the light uniformly onto a layer of bacterial cells for five minutes, before exposing them to a more complex light pattern—a negative image of the Mona Lisa. They found that bacteria started to concentrate in the dark regions of the image while moving out from the more illuminated areas. After four minutes, a recognizable bacterial replica of Leonardo da Vinci's painting could be seen, with brighter areas corresponding to regions of accumulated bacterial cells.

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This accurate millimetric replica of Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa was formed by approximately one million E. coli cells that were genetically engineered to respond to light. (Image credit: Frangipane et al., 2018)

Although the shape formed by the bacteria was recognizable, the team found that the engineered E. coli were slow to respond to variations in light, which led to a blurred formation of the target shape. To remedy this, they used a feedback control loop where the bacterial shape is compared to the target image every 20 seconds, and the light pattern is updated accordingly. This generated an optimal light pattern that shaped cell concentration with much higher accuracy. The result is a photokinetic bacterial cell layer that can be turned into an almost perfect replica of a complex black-and-white target image.

"We have shown how the suspension of swimming bacteria could lead to a new class of light-controllable active materials whose density can be shaped accurately, reversibly, and quickly using a low-power light projector," says Roberto Di Leonardo, associate professor in the Department of Physics at Rome University. "With further engineering, the bacteria could be used to create solid biomechanical structures or novel microdevices for the transport of small biological cargoes inside miniaturized laboratories."

Full details of the work appear in the journal eLife.

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