The International Genetically Engineered Machine competition (iGEM) is an annual contest in which student teams use a kit of "standard biological parts" to engineer bacteria with new and interesting properties.
There were 110 teams entered in the 2009 iGEM competition. Finalists included Valencia's "bio-screen" lighting display and Groningen's heavy metal scavengers for cleaning polluted water. You can find information about all the team submissions on the official web site.
The winner of the competition was the Cambridge team, for their development of "E. chromi": bacteria engineered to express a rainbow of different colored pigments. Although the bacteria are colorful enough be used to create bacterial art, they were designed to be environmental sensors.
So what does that have to do with poop? The Cambridge iGEM team collaborated with designers Daisy Ginsberg and James King - who both use biotechnology in their art - to brainstorm potential applications for their design. One of the possibilities they came up with was The Scatalog, which proposes to use pigment producing bacteria for inexpensive personal disease monitoring.
The idea is pretty simple: eat some tasty yogurt containing E. coli bacteria engineered to secrete different colored pigments in the presence of specific chemical signals. E. coli are a normal part of your intestinal flora, so the bioengineered bacteria should be able to colonize your gastrointestinal tract. In a healthy system, only one color - say blue - would be produced, resulting in blue poop. Any chemical changes in your system, such as exposure to toxins or development of a disease, would cause your poop to change color. Just match your poop color to the reference turds in the Scatalog and you get an instant health assessment.
Sadly, the Scatalog hasn't been developed beyond its colorful plastic poo samples. As experts have pointed out, it may turn out to be too impractical to be implemented:
"I can see the popular appeal of this kind of E. chromi technology," said Rick Henrikson, who helps run the Point-of-Care Diagnostics Idea Lab at the University of California, Berkeley. "But as far as actual diagnostics, conceptually it's a little far off." Developing such a product, he explained, would require huge feats: getting the Food and Drug Administration to approve it, for example, and keeping the body's immune system from attacking the bacteria.
What a party pooper!
Here's a video of the creators explaining the project (there is unfortunately a lot of background noise that makes the audio a bit difficult to understand.):
Bottom image: Scatalog display at iGEM2009 Jamboree, taken by jimhaseloff on Flickr and shared under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial license.