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Bacteria Bearing Messages - Chemical Communications: Method permits encoding, decoding text messages with the use of living organisms

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Aiming to enhance the interface between chemistry, biology, and information technology, a research team has developed a technique to encode messages in patterns of bacteria and reveal them through fluorescence.

"We think our technique can potentially be used for easy-to-read biological barcoding, as a deterrent to counterfeiting, or, of course, for secret communications," says postdoc Manuel A. Palacios of Tufts University, first author of a paper describing the approach (Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA, DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1109554108). The study was carried out by Palacios, Tufts chemistry professor David R. Walt, Harvard University chemistry professor George M. Whitesides, and coworkers.

The technique's advantage is the use of a visible, easy-to-read output for the encoded information—the output being a pattern of fluorescent signals produced when the bacterial messengers are grown in an array. Nonbiological information has been encoded in the DNA of microorganisms before, mostly for barcoding purposes, but expensive sequencing or other molecular biology laboratory techniques were needed to read the messages. With the new approach, all that is needed to read an encoded message is a light diode source to excite fluorescence and a camera to record and interpret it.

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