Bacterial Radio exhibits several bacterially-grown platinum/germanium electrical circuits (crystal radios) on glass substrates. Joe Davis, in collaboration with Ido Bachelet and Tara Gianoulis from Harvard Medical School in Boston, used bacteria altered with variants of a gene from orange marine puffball sponges (Tethya aurantia) to plate electronic circuits on Petri dishes and microscope slides. This gene codes for a protein – silicatein – that normally forms Tethya aurantia’s glass skeleton, its tiny, glass, needle-like spicules composed of silicon and oxygen. Variants of this gene have now been optimized to plate metallic conductors and semiconductors including germanium, titanium dioxide, platinum and other materials. Here, genetically-modified bacteria are embedded in non-conductive materials containing metal salts, and then optically induced to plate specific, electrically conductive circuits. These Bacterial Radios on display are connected to high impedance telephone headsets, antennae and ground, so that visitors may use them to actually listen to AM radio broadcasts.
Using the gene silicatein for his Bacterial Radio, referring to the pervasive use of silicon-based products for telecommunication devices, Joe Davis takes the underlying metaphors literally, and ironically reverses the main goal of synthetic biology by applying biological principals to electronic engineering, instead of vice versa. While synthetic biologists attempt to create “genetic circuits” made out of standard biological parts, devices and systems, frequently citing electronic engineering as their most favorite metaphor, critics argue that living organisms are too complex to be designed and constructed like electronic circuits.
Joe Davis is an artist and researcher in the Department of Biology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge and the Department of Genetics at Harvard Medical School in Boston. His research and art include work in the fields of molecular biology, bioinformatics, lasers, space science and sculpture, using media reaching from centrifuges, radios, glass, prosthetics and magnetic fields to genetic material.