News - June 9, 2011

Students illuminate bacteria communication

Wageningen students are entering the iGEM biotech competition for the first time, with an attempt to illuminate communication between cells.

Cells are in continuous contact with each other, and without this communication, complex life forms are not possible. But can you make it visible? Yes you can, thinks Martijn Wapenaar. He and fourteen fellow students thought up a way of making the communication between bacteria visible to the naked eye.
The team of Bachelor's and Master's students (of molecular life sciences, bioinformatics and biotechnology) make up the Wageningen entry in the international genetic engineering competition (, which aims to popularize synthetic biology. This young branch of science is all about getting existing organisms to play new tricks by building extra genetic material into them.

String of lights
The Wageningen team, supported by the new System and Synthetic Biology chair group, is focusing on making the communication between cells visible. Their entry will consist of two projects. In one project, students will try to get a colony of E. coli bacteria to light up simultaneously and at regular intervals. Making bacteria light up is a common theme in the iGEM competition, but to turn an entire colony into a sort of flashing light is something new. The difficulty lies in the flashing, says Wapenaar: it requires the light to be switched off again.
The second project involved turning the Aspergillus nidulans fungus into a kind of living string of lights. At the end of the hypha, or fungal filament, a light signal will be created which will then replicate itself all along the filament. According to Wapenaar, the Wageningen team will be the first to work with fungi. So he hopes that will impress the jury. The final of the European round will be held in Amsterdam in October, to be followed by the real final in Boston.
The Wageningen team can be followed at