Researchers developed bacteria that can create images

Felix Moser / AP

Researchers at MIT have engineered bacteria to sense red, green, and blue light — and then create a picture of what they've "seen," like the arrangement of fruit pictured above, by expressing pigments in those colors.

"At the most fundamental level, we've given E. Coli the ability to detect different kinds of light and then compose an image," says genetic engineer Felix Moser. "It's a demonstration that synthetic biology tools have come a long way in the last decade."

Synthetic biologists designed and custom built new genetic parts for bacterial cells that create: light-detecting proteins, a circuit to navigate and leverage the cell's mechanisms for turning genes on and off, a capacitor of sorts to regulate the energy burden being placed on the cell when it expresses these different proteins, and enzymes that actually produce the pigments.

Then, with the 1970s' finest slide projector technology, they projected an image onto a plate of bacteria and, the next morning, the bacteria had recreated the image they'd "seen."

Beyond bacteria with red-green-blue vision, precisely directed light could conceivably be used to control the production of chemicals or vaccines, essentially turning bacteria into optimized manufacturing facilities.