E. chromi: Living Colour from Bacteria

Project
2009

In collaboration with James King & the University of Cambridge iGEM 2009 team.

See also Limited Editions: E.chromi, The Scatalog.

E. chromi is a collaboration between designers and scientists in the new field of synthetic biology. 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 sense 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 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. This collaboration 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.

The Scatalog.

E. coli expressing Violacein. Photo at Cambridge iGEM, 2009.

The Cambridge iGEM team with Tom Knight. Photo: iGEM/David Appleyard, 2009.

The Scatalog at Alive! Fondation EDF, 2013.

Appearances:

Permanent collection of the Museo Delle Scienze, Trento
Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo
Science Gallery, Dublin
Fondation EDF, Paris
Index Awards, Asia tour
MoMA, New York
The National Museum of China, Beijing
Design Museum, London
The Wellcome Trust, London
St Etienne Biennale Internationale Design, France

Nomination, Brit Insurance Designs of the Year, 2011
Finalist, Index Awards, 2011

Animation credits:

Design: Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg 
& James King

Animation: Cath Elliot 
(Little Giant Pictures)

Music: Matthew Irvine Brown

Illustration: Alice Hoult
Scatalog photography: Åsa Johannesson

The Scatalog.

E. coli expressing Violacein. Photo at Cambridge iGEM, 2009.

The Cambridge iGEM team with Tom Knight. Photo: iGEM/David Appleyard, 2009.

The Scatalog at Alive! Fondation EDF, 2013.