Scientist in lab with test tubes

Tuning in to Unexpected Signals: Bacterial Bioelectricity

The Molecular Foundry at Lawrence Berkley National Labs

When you think of technology at the interface of electronics and biology, if you think of it at all, you might assume that it is relegated to the world of pure science fiction. However, there’s a real-life lab on the cusp of scientific advancement actively pushing the boundaries of what we understand to be possible.¬†

Dr. Michel Maharbiz’s research group at the University of California, Berkley, specialize in hybrid biological and synthetic bacteria, cyborg beetles, brain-machine interfaces, and more. Working in collaboration with researchers at the Molecular Foundry at Lawrence Berkeley National Labs, where all their experiments are conducted, the Maharbiz Group develop new and useful ways to blend the biological with the synthetic.

“Working with Temboo has been effortless and significantly improved the speed of development of my research.”

Alyssa Zhou, Electrical Engineering Ph.D., University of California Berkeley

What if, by sensing the bioelectric activity of tiny bacteria floating in a liquid, you could deduce the presence and concentration of particular chemicals? One member of the Maharbiz Group is working to make that an everyday possibility for scientists around the world. We got in touch to find out how she uses Temboo to support her work in the lab.

Shewanella Oneidensis, the electroactive bacterial component in Zhou’s sensing system

Alyssa Zhou is a PhD candidate at UC Berkley’s Electrical Engineering department whose research in developing bacterial sensing systems is made possible by support from the Office of Naval Research. Zhou’s research looks to the intersection of microbiology and electrical engineering to create sensitive sensors in aquatic environments. Through the course of their evolution, bacteria have developed highly responsive sensing abilities. Zhou and her colleagues leverage those natural evolutionary developments by pairing them with emerging technological developments in low-power sensing.

She is developing a mobile, autonomous platform which encapsulates electroactive bacteria and senses their electrical current production, which varies according to stimulants in their environment. The measurements are taken by commercial off-the-shelf components utilizing low-power current sensing circuitry.

Low-power wireless modules from RedBear Lab are one hardware component in Zhou’s platform

Once bioelectric data is recorded by the system, the information is sent wirelessly to a Google Sheet via Temboo. Ultimately, this wireless communication capability will be a cornerstone in developing deployable motes for on-site, real-time environmental chemical sensing.

On average, her experiments run for four to five days, during which her data logging device collects measurements every 15 seconds, resulting in more than 23,000 data points tracked through Temboo per experiment. If we account for the repetitions of each experiment, a scientific best practice, then three or four of these devices are running in parallel, resulting in close to 100k data points per experiment, all tracked with Temboo.

With Zhou’s sensing platform in the hands of researchers in remote areas, valuable testing results will be dramatically accelerated. People who need answers will be able to get them without waiting for samples to be transported to the lab and processed. Zhou and her colleagues are helping vital information move at the speed of bioelectricity, and Temboo is proud to be a part of their software stack.

Update: Zhou and her colleagues’ research paper “A portable bioelectronic sensing system (BESSY) for environmental deployment incorporating differential microbial sensing in miniaturized reactors” has now been published in the peer-reviewed science journal¬†PLOS ONE.