Bacteria with a message

Sending secret messages by way of bacteria may sound like science fiction, but to a team of 13 students in Groningen, it is simply science. This summer, they cancelled their plans to design a bacterium containing a secret message.
By Simone Harmsen / Animation by René Lapoutre & Sjef Weller / Translation by Sarah van Steenderen

A team of 13 Groningen students is trying to send secret messages through the DNA of a bacterium.

They are using bacillus subtilis, a type of bacterium that easily takes in new DNA.

But reading the message back is not exactly easy. First, the bacterium has to be filtered using the correct antibiotic, after which the code needs to be cracked.

If the bacterium is not handled correctly, it will self-destruct and the secret is lost.

According to supervisor Oscar Kuipers, one bacterium can hold multiple books. Moreover, a bacterium spore can survive for millions of years.

The team hopes to win an international genetic modification contest with their project. The finale will be held in the American city of Boston in late October.

Reading time: 5 minutes (744 words)

There is nothing new under the sun. It has all been done before’, says Sherlock Holmes in A study in Scarlet, the first book Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote about the famous detective. Is that true? Has everything really been done before? Thirteen Groningen students provide evidence to the contrary by doing something completely different. They are trying to use a bacterium to send a secret message.

A secret message inside a bacterium? Yes, indeed. The students inserted a sentence from the same famous detective novel into a microbe. The sentence reads: The world is full of obvious things which nobody by any chance ever observes.

‘We thought it fitting’, says Bente Hofstra, one of the students working on the project. Her team member Eike Mahlandt agrees: ‘After all, no one would go looking for a secret message in a bacterium.’

DNA tinkering

The Groningen students are participating in the international collegiate competition, iGEM (international Genetically Engineered Machine). Participants have to tinker with bacterium DNA to try and solve a current problem.

The Groningen team came up with a way to store data that cannot be hacked through conventional, digital techniques. They used a computer programme to turn the Sherlock Holmes sentence into a DNA code and sent that to a company that made the DNA for them. Next, they embedded it into the bacterium bacillus subtilis.

Bacillus subtilis is harmless to humans and possesses the nifty characteristic of easily taking in new DNA. By putting the bacterium on rations, that characteristic can be reinforced. Mahlandt: ‘If you submerge a starving bacterium into a solution with that DNA, it will take it in and incorporate it into its own DNA.’

Cracked code

In order to ship the bacteria, the students put them into a type of hibernation called a spore. Next, they shipped the spores to the Wageningen and Eindhoven iGEM teams. They now have to decipher the message.

And that is not an easy task. Because if you do not handle the spores correctly, they will self-destruct, along with their DNA. Besides, they are hidden in a mix of other bacteria. The bacteria can only be filtered by using the correct antibiotic, leaving the specimens containing the message. Wageningen failed in their first attempt due to a technical mishap, Carina Nieuwenwegen of the Wageningen iGEM team says. ‘But we’ve made great headway deciphering the code.’

Super safe

Why would anyone want to communicate using a bacterium? ‘If your mother wants to know what you’re having for dinner tonight, a text is definitely the more practical option’, Hofstra admits. But the students mainly consider the method to be a super safe way of communicating.

‘President Obama could use it should he want to send a secret message to another head of state, for instance’, suggests professor Oskar Kuipers, who supervises the students. ‘There is enough space in a single bacterium to store entire books. Modern storage media eventually become unreadable, but a bacterium spore can survive for millions of years. That could come in really handy in the future. Companies have already shown interest.’

You might wonder if such a secret means of communications is not vulnerable to abuse, perhaps by terrorists. Kuipers is fairly matter-of-fact about it: ‘If they have the knowledge and the materials, terrorists would be able to do this as well. But that goes for every technique. Terrorists can also send encrypted e-mails. I don’t think it works as an argument against developing certain techniques.’

Grand finale

In a few weeks, the Groningen team will travel to Boston, in the United States, where the grand finale takes place between 27 and 31 October. The students themselves feel that they have a good chance of winning. Mahlandt: ‘Other teams have really ambitious projects. They want to purify land on Mars, or put genetically modified bacteria in the ocean. But we’ve come up with something that can actually be done, ethically and practically-speaking.’

Whatever happens, professor Kuipers is proud of his students: ‘As far as I’m concerned, this is one of the best iGEM teams we’ve had in years. But ultimately, it’s not about winning; it’s about knowledge and experience.’

The students have to ensure acquisition for their project themselves. They have to raise the money themselves for everything ranging from petri dishes to plane tickets. If you would like to help them get to Boston, you can do so here.



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