Use Steganography by Printed Arrays of Microbes For Secret Messages!

Steganography by printed arrays of microbes is a unique means of sending secret messages that would have amazed Edgar Allen Poe, who lived his entire life thinking invisible ink was cool.

Manuel Palacios, a chemist at Tufts University in Medford Massachusetts, and his colleagues took a simpler approach by encrypting messages using seven strains of Escherichia coli bacteria. Each one was engineered to produce a different fluorescent protein, which glows in a different colour under the right light.

"We really wanted to use easily observable traits," says Palacios. Techniques such as Venter's require sophisticated equipment to sequence the DNA and unlock the message. "In our case, light-emitting diodes and an iPhone would do," notes Palacios.

Colonies of bacteria are grown in rows of paired spots, every combination of two colours corresponding to a different letter, digit or symbol. For example, two yellow spots signify a 't', whereas an orange and a green spot denote a 'd'. Once grown, the pattern of colonies is imprinted onto a nitrocellulose sheet, which is posted in an envelope. The recipient can use the sheet to regrow the bacteria in the same pattern and decipher the message.

By choosing the right E. coli strains, people could send messages that appear after specific periods of time, or slowly degenerate like the self-destructing memos from the television programme and film series Mission: Impossible.

Palacios has also developed ways to turn antibiotics into keys that unlock the hidden messages, by linking the genes for the fluorescent proteins to the ability to resist specific antibiotics.

In his recently published 2011 novel Spiral, Paul McEuen uses a similar idea to present a message using genetically modified fungi.

The three [fungi] symbols glowed, pulsing. She studied them closely. [Liam] must have worked very hard to get them to turn on and off like that. It was a biological feedback loop, she knew. Express the green fluorescent protein pathway from the Aequorea victoria jellyfish, then have that expression induce the creation of a suppressor that would turn it off...

The red. A long pulse, then two shorter.

The green one. A long pulse, then short.

The yellow. A short pulse, followed by a longer one.

From Nature.

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