As part of a collaboration between the University of Cambridge and Dutch company Hoekmine BV, researchers recently began modifying the color of some bacteria.
Published in the journal PNAS, the study looks at flavobacterium, which is a type of bacteria that packs together in colonies and produces a vibrant color. The bacteria’s structure reflects light at different wavelengths. It’s those genes that the scientists experimented with.
“It is crucial to map the genes responsible for the structural coloration for further understanding of how nanostructures are engineered in nature,” said first author Villads Egede Johansen, from Cambridge’s Department of Chemistry. “This is the first systematic study of the genes underpinning structural colors—not only in bacteria but in any living system.”
The scientists took the genes and were able to mutate them into many different colors and hues, ranging from red to blue and vibrant to subtle. This success is a crucial stepping stone to developing a biodegradable, non-toxic paint, the researchers say.
“From an applied perspective, this bacterial system allows us to achieve tunable living photonic structures that can be reproduced in abundance, avoiding traditional nanofabrication methods,” said co-senior author Silvia Vignolini, also from Cambridge’s Department of Chemistry.
“We see a potential in the use of such bacterial colonies as photonic pigments that can be readily optimized for changing coloration under external stimuli and that can interface with other living tissues, thereby adapting to variable environments. The future is open for biodegradable paints on our cars and walls—simply by growing exactly the color and appearance we want.”
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