Scientists at UC San Diego have made a bioluminescent bacterial billboard. They call it a "living neon sign composed of millions of bacterial cells that periodically fluoresce in unison like blinking light bulbs." Making it all work "involved attaching a fluorescent protein to the biological clocks of the bacteria, synchronizing the clocks of the thousands of bacteria within a colony, then synchronizing thousands of the blinking bacterial colonies to glow on and off in unison." These are referred to as biopixels.

Two summers ago, we looked at the idea of a "bioluminescent metropolis," where light-emitting organisms are used to supplement, and even replace, a city's inorganic sources of illumination, from streetlights to digital billboards, as if scaling the Newnes Glow Worm Tunnel up to size of a whole city (something that might be useful for places where streetlights are being turned off and even physically removed because paying tax in support of public infrastructure is socialist).

In that post, one of my personal favorites here on the blog, we looked at the work of architect Liam Young, who once proposed the creation of bacterial billboards, squirrel-like living screens that would crawl through and inhabit the city. They would nest in trees like LED ornaments and spring up whenever there's news (or advertisements) to display.

Behold, the future's bioluminescent billboardsS

So could this vision of a bioluminescent metropolis be far off? UC San Diego suggests that their "flashing bacterial signs are not only a visual display of how researchers in the new field of synthetic biology can engineer living cells like machines, but will likely lead to some real-life applications." Surely it would not take much work-even if only as a media stunt-to make a full-scale functioning prototype of a bioluminescent streetlight? Or a bioluminescent bathroom nightlight for your kids?

But, then, of course, the inevitable escape from domestication, when invasive bioluminescent organisms, from genetically-modified kudzu and street weeds to super-bright worms and bacterial mats, conquer the city.

Via Wired UK. Image: Bioluminescent billboards by Liam Young. This post originally appeared on BLDGBLOG. You can follow Geoff Manaugh on Twitter here.