Bacteria Used to Encrypt Messages
September 28, 2011

Bacteria Used to Encrypt Messages

Scientists have discovered a method whereby E. Coli bacteria are used to encrypt messages.

The discovery, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) by researchers from Tufts University, allows simple messages to be encoded by genetically modified bacteria that produce different florescence proteins.

These proteins react to different light frequencies allowing patterns to be developed. The scientists setup an alphabet and grid system using seven different colors, with each color representing different letters and the numbers 1 through 9, according to the Daily Mail Online.

BBC News reports that these encoded messages have been dubbed SPAM (Steganograpy by Printed Arrays of Microbes). The scientists speculate that there are many uses for this system including secret communications and prevention of counterfeiting.

Professor David Walt, head author of the study and a chemist at Tufts University, told Bloomberg, “It´s another layer of protection, a way of sending secure messages, preventing counterfeiting and providing authentication.”

The bacteria though would be invisible if intercepted. They do not fluoresce until they are “developed” using specific chemicals. According to the BBC the undeveloped message can be transferred onto a velvet sheet and delivered to the intended recipient who then transfers it back onto the growth medium and then developed, allowing the colors to show.

If the message is captured and developed with the wrong chemicals, the code becomes gibberish.

The scientists developed the bacteria to be resistant to certain antibiotics, meaning that different messages can be developed using different antibiotics. One experiment, according to the BBC, the scientists grew the same array of bacteria on media impregnated with the antibiotics ampicillin and kanamycin.

When the message was developed the ampicillin message read, “this is a bioencoded message from the Walt Lab at Tufts University.” The kanamycin message was encoded to read “you have used the wrong cipher and this message is gibberish.”

The researchers speculate that there is a great use for this method of encoding messages, such as in combating counterfeiting high value pharmaceuticals, where incorrect dosages may be life-threatening. Prof. Walt told the BBC, “That way, the receiver can authenticate a delivery to make sure it hasn´t been tampered with.”


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