E. chromi is a collaboration between designers and synthetic biologists. 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, known as BioBricks, and inserted them into E. coli bacteria. Each BioBrick part contains genes selected from existing organisms spanning the living kingdoms, enabling the bacteria to produce a colour: red, yellow, green, blue, brown or violet. By combining these with other BioBricks, bacteria could be programmed to do useful things, such as indicate whether drinking water is safe by turning red if they detect a toxin. E. chromi won the Grand Prize at the 2009 International Genetically Engineered Machine Competition (iGEM).
Designers Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg and James King worked with the iGEM team to explore the potential of this new technology while it was being developed in the lab. They designed a timeline proposing ways that a foundational technology such as E. chromi could develop over the next century. These scenarios include food additives, patenting issues, personalised medicine, terrorism and new types of weather. Not necessarily desirable, they explore the different agendas that could shape the use of E. chromi and in turn, our everyday lives.
One speculative use for E. chromi is the Scatalog, set in the year 2039, which asks: Could cheap, personalised disease monitoring work from the inside out? Engineered E. coli bacteria would be ingested as yoghurt, and they would then colonise the gut. These E. chromi bacteria would keep watch for toxins or the chemical markers of diseases, and produce an easy-to-read warning signal upon detection, with different coloured faeces diagnosing different conditions. This fictional interface challenges our understanding of a biological computing interface. The collaboration between the designers and the iGEM team has meant that E. chromi is a technology that has been designed at both the genetic and the human scale, setting a precedent for future collaborations between designers and scientists.
We made the Scatalog to challenge the depiction of biology as cogs, computer parts or Lego. It was intended as a critical, provocative intervention: we took it to iGEM and asked synthetic biologists about the gut as a computing interface. But by imagining the future, even in a critical way, you might make it more likely. I’ve met scientists who are trying to bring this idea to life. Would it work? Bacteria can produce colour pigments; designing bacteria to detect different levels of concentration is a reality too. Ingesting bacteria that could reliably detect different chemicals and produce colour signals, within the complex ecosystem of the body, is less easy. Stopping them evolving and keeping them reliable enough to risk your health on is further away. The Scatalog was set in 2039 to ask, even if the technology comes soon, will the cultural barriers be less penetrable?