Like a pulsing blue shower, E. coli cells flash in synchrony. Genes inserted into each cell turn a fluorescent protein on and off at regular intervals. When enough cells grow in the colony, a phenomenon called quorum sensing allows them to switch from blinking independently to blinking in unison. Researchers can watch waves of light propagate across the colony. Adjusting the temperature, chemical composition or other conditions can change the frequency and amplitude of the waves. Because the blinks react to subtle changes in the environment, synchronized oscillators like this one could one day allow biologists to build cellular sensors that detect pollutants or help deliver drugs. Courtesy of bioengineer Jeff Hasty, University of California, San Diego.
Featured in the January 20, 2010, issue of Biomedical Beat.