On invisibility (paradoxically, with pictures)

So, you’ve heard me yammer about augmentation, chemical, biological, human. There’s nothing particularly special about this word. Other folks talk about engineering. Same difference. I guess I just like the word because engineering always seems to inherently presume that you have a precise goal in mind, or a set of known tools that you’re using. That could just be my bias. But to me, augmentation is … more open-ended.

Previously I talked about the amazing unSubtilis and the slightly less amazing unColi. Organisms that can incorporate fluorotryptophan throughout their proteomes. An academic feat, right? A mere fillip on the flank of science (yeah, I got that word from my man Rex Stout). Ah, but what else might it mean?

Seguing wildly, there is the classic H.G. Wells tale about the Invisible Man, and the slightly less classic SyFy series.


And then there are the un-organisms, mentioned above. How do we see organisms? Well, beyond the usual microscopy methods, there is the fact that many organisms have a different fluorescence profile than, say, your average speck of dust. And this different fluorescence profile is due in part to the native fluorescence of the aminio acid tryptophan, which is contained in many proteins throughout the cell.

But here’s the deal. In addition to its amusement value, fluorotrpytophan has a different fluorescence profile than normal tryptophan.

That’s right, fluorotryptophan is as invisible in its own way as the hapless Dr. Griffin.

Well, so what? For time immemorial invisibility has been prized by as a tactical or strategic advantage. Usually we call it camouflage or secrecy or whatever, but if your adversary don’t be knowing you’re there, then the advantage be yours. Or the more elegant Sun Tzu suggests: “Ethereal, a master leaves no trace to be seen, mysterious under Heaven, he leaves no sound to be heard. By these two, a master seals his foe’s fate.”

Which brings us to the impact of invisibility on the modern battlefield. One strongly suspects that the impact of bending light by the trick of CCD detection and projection has not been lost on the military. But what of fluorescently invisible bacteria? Could they be a threat? Oh yes. Here is one way we detect non-fluorescently invisible bacteria that might be part and parcel of a biological attack, the BIDS.

So, here’s the deal. Could someone make an unAnthrax? And would the BIDS detect it? I don’t know. But I hope someone is thinking about this, and not just about the possibility of some super duper engineered genome (again the subject of an earlier rant). Because unlike the super duper engineered genome, the invisible bacteria is something that is well within current technological capabilities. And also unlike the super duper engineered genome, the invisible bacteria is not something we might normally think about, like flying airplanes into buildings (again the subject of an earlier rant).


- originally posted on Friday, July 30th, 2010