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Biotech Science

Encoding Messages In Bacteria 52

sciencehabit writes "Researchers have invented a new form of secret messaging using bacteria that make glowing proteins only under certain conditions. In addition to being useful to spies, the new technique could also allow companies to encode secret identifiers into crops, seeds, or other living commodities."
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Encoding Messages In Bacteria

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  • Next they can get to work teaching them to predict the future by zapping them with laser beams.
    • by ackthpt ( 218170 )

      Next they can get to work teaching them to predict the future by zapping them with laser beams.

      This could lead to viral marketing, too.

      I'll get me coat.

  • by Anonymous Coward


    Haha, what the hell is a "sork", stupid bacteria

  • by arielCo ( 995647 ) on Wednesday September 28, 2011 @05:37PM (#37546442)

    Yeah baby, watermarking seeds. Mmmm ...

    And what's the insight offered by a random scientist on this?

    "It's a really cool idea," says Kenneth Suslick, a chemist at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

    • by srmalloy ( 263556 ) on Wednesday September 28, 2011 @05:43PM (#37546490) Homepage

      "Your honor, we present this genetic analysis of the defendant's grain crop. If I may direct the court's attention to this particular DNA sequence? This is an intron -- a non-functional section of DNA -- specifically inserted by Monsanto. Using the following encoding system, the base sequence of the intron codes for the string "Patent 12,343,253 Monsanto Corp. 2015". As the defendant has not bought seed from Monsanto for five years, he would not have been able to harvest our patented strain of grain unless he had retained grain from previous harvests to replant, which is a direct violation of the contract he signed when he last purchased Monsanto seed grain."

      • Also your liver and stomach would be subject to DMCS violations since they are consuming/breaking "media" and I have yet to see a liver paying royalties. They can encode the latest single of justing beaver in your rice! and You'll be fined by the tablespoon.

        On related news, an outbreak of fainting have been reported in Disney Corp, MAFIAA and ABA headquarters.

  • by nirgle ( 554262 ) on Wednesday September 28, 2011 @05:42PM (#37546486) Homepage
    Two million pounds of meat recalled due to high levels of profanity... more at 11pm.
  • Encoding language into DNA has been used in several art projects, for instance this one [] by mad professor of literature Christian Bök (work still in progress, I believe). DARPA imitates art?

  • Cough ... Cough ... what's that you say? No my seeds aren't patented I just took a huge toke.
  • "Chalmers, a man with a keen sense of humor, had used the example of a man looking down on a microscope slide and seeing the bacteria formed into the words 'Take us to your leader.' Everyone thought Chalmers's idea highly amusing."

  • by caseih ( 160668 ) on Wednesday September 28, 2011 @07:06PM (#37547292)

    I don't really see the current research as being applicable to the lucrative crop seed production market very soon. But I'm sure Monsanto and others are watching this research with interest.

    One huge problem I see with this gene matermarking idea in commercial crop production is that genes are moving across nature anyways. This fall after spraying some of my Liberty-Link canola with round-up so I could combine it straight (kind of like running just "make install" instead of "make; make install" ;). After 10 days there were still a few very green spots in the field. I have a strong hunch that those spots had round-up resistant genes then them, probably growing up from volunteer seeds in the soil. Now I've never ever grown round-up ready canola there before. Some was grown a half mile away or so. People have been discovering round-up tolerant canola growing in all kinds of weird places. Due to whatever cause we know for sure that roundup-ready genes are moving without human intervention. Also more and more weeds are round-up tolerant but that might just be because of over-use of round-up.

    In any case, watermarking seed isn't viable in the long term. What Monsanto is probably more interested in, is making single-generation crops. If the farmer can't hold back seed, then they've got a guaranteed market. In north america, single-generation wheat has been pretty much shot down by the farming community. But abroad, it's a lot harder to say no to that kind of thing.

    • by mikael ( 484 )

      Most insects which munch on vegetation can move from plant to plant as well as regurgitate cellular material and carry it on their mandibles. I wouldn't be surprised that genetic material can be transferred from plant to plant, especially if mosquitoes, fleas and ticks can transfer bacterial/viral material from mammal to mammal.

  • Now Geico will have one more place to stick their ads.
  • by estitabarnak ( 654060 ) on Wednesday September 28, 2011 @08:47PM (#37548134)

    These techniques are old hat. We've been modifying bacteria to serve as biomarkers for a long time now. They're used in quick and easy assays for chemical contaminants, for instance. Basic idea is just that you have your "certain condition" from the article be one with, say, arsenic. The bacteria create a fluorescent or coloured compound as a result and you have a positive hit for contamination.

    So before we get too deep in to evil corporations tracking their products, keep in mind that the tech has been around for a long time and if it was a valuable thing to do, they probably already would. But it seems like there's relatively little point in, say, Monsanto tracking crops by inserting a gene when we have much simpler options like PCR available.

  • Iain M Banks had a spy character in his book "Excession" encode messages on bacteria as a secret communication channel. However, the messages were successfully intercepted.

    Good book. I enjoy his Culture novels.

  • Bob sends Alice a cryptographic message encoded in DNA. Alice is unable to decrypt the message using standard techniques.

    However certain techniques of combining the message with a similarly formatted DNA compliment of her own can often enable Alice to successfully identify Bob.
    • by Rich0 ( 548339 )

      Yeah, but you just have to watch one episode of CSI to realize how tough key management is when you leave a copy of your private key on everything you touch...

  • So, you put your message into the DNA. Hope you retrieve it within a few generations. Plants and animals change. DNA gets exchanged and mutated.

    These changes could be considered bit errors, making "DNA encryption" and "DNA encoding' kinda futile. And good on ya if your message and someone else's get mixed up in the field.

    Oh, and here's another thought... What if those "dead DNA areas" where you stored your message are simply DNA that required some exotic condition to express? You message might be l

Things are not as simple as they seems at first. - Edward Thorp