The bacterial nanorecorder: engineering E. coli to function as a chemical recording device

PLoS One. 2011;6(11):e27559. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0027559. Epub 2011 Nov 23.


Synthetic biology is an emerging branch of molecular biology that uses synthetic genetic constructs to create man-made cells or organisms that are capable of performing novel and/or useful applications. Using a synthetic chemically sensitive genetic toggle switch to activate appropriate fluorescent protein indicators (GFP, RFP) and a cell division inhibitor (minC), we have created a novel E. coli strain that can be used as a highly specific, yet simple and inexpensive chemical recording device. This biological "nanorecorder" can be used to determine both the type and the time at which a brief chemical exposure event has occurred. In particular, we show that the short-term exposure (15-30 min) of cells harboring this synthetic genetic circuit to small molecule signals (anhydrotetracycline or IPTG) triggered long-term and uniform cell elongation, with cell length being directly proportional to the time elapsed following a brief chemical exposure. This work demonstrates that facile modification of an existing genetic toggle switch can be exploited to generate a robust, biologically-based "nanorecorder" that could potentially be adapted to detect, respond and record a wide range of chemical stimuli that may vary over time and space.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Escherichia coli / cytology
  • Escherichia coli / drug effects
  • Escherichia coli / metabolism*
  • Genes, Reporter / genetics
  • Genetic Engineering / methods*
  • Green Fluorescent Proteins / metabolism
  • Isopropyl Thiogalactoside / pharmacology
  • Luminescent Proteins / metabolism
  • Nanostructures / chemistry*
  • Plasmids / genetics
  • Synthetic Biology / methods*
  • Tetracyclines / pharmacology
  • Time Factors


  • Luminescent Proteins
  • Tetracyclines
  • red fluorescent protein
  • Green Fluorescent Proteins
  • Isopropyl Thiogalactoside
  • 4-epianhydrotetracycline