Researchers at the University of California San Diego have developed an innovative neon display using live bacteria. The pulsating fluorescent pixels were made possible when a team altered the genetic makeup of E. Coli bacteria and coupled their biological clocks with a fluorescent protein that then tuned a whole batch of bacteria to the same bio-cycle. In addition to glowing in unison, the bacteria’s pulsing patterns change with the introduction of certain toxins, like arsenic. The team of researchers believes that the resulting display will be able to detect levels of toxins over time. Video of the display after the jump.

Though the display puts off a healthy glow the team doesn’t think this technology is headed to the lighting or television world – it is more likely to be used for its toxin detection abilities. “These kinds of living sensors are intriguing as they can serve to continuously monitor a given sample over long periods of time, whereas most detection kits are used for a one-time measurement,” said Jeff Hasty, head of the research team and professor of biology and bioengineering at UC San Diego. “Because the bacteria respond in different ways to different concentrations by varying the frequency of their blinking pattern, they can provide a continual update on how dangerous a toxin or pathogen is at any one time.”

The research highlights the new world of synthetic biology where the DNA of bacteria and other single cell organisms are altered by researchers to perform specific functions. “This development illustrates how basic, quantitative knowledge of cellular circuitry can be applied to the new discipline of synthetic biology,” said James Anderson of the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute of General Medical Sciences — which partially funded the research. “By laying the foundation for the development of new devices for detecting harmful substances or pathogens, Dr. Hasty’s new sensor points the way toward translation of synthetic biology research into technology for improving human health.” The living display research from UCSD is detailed in this week’s issue of the journal Nature.