Researchers Make "Baby Borg" Logic Gates for Bacteria Hive Computer
December 10, 2010 9:30 AM
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Computers of the future may consist of "assimilated" E. Coli bacteria.
(Source: The Matrix Project)
Using genetic reprogramming, UCSF researchers have forced bacteria to become logic gates for a hive mind
Star Trek:The Next Generation
may have been prescient when they dreamed up the Borg -- living organisms that had been transformed into a hive computer mind. Indeed, many biology and genetics researchers today are hoping to
transform bacteria into drones
, forming a biological supercomputer of the future.
study in the journal
Christopher A. Voigt
, PhD, and his colleagues at the University of California San Francisco, demonstrated how intercellular communications between genetically modified
bacteria could act as a crude computer.
Professor Voigt's team first modified the bacteria to secrete a pair of compounds -- one, which represented "on", and one that represented "off". By modifying the signal processing genetics of the bacteria, his team transformed the lifeforms into logic gates.
For example, if the bacteria received the "on" signal from both of its neighbors, if it had the gene profile to be an "AND" gate it would secrete an "on". However, if the bacteria was programmed as an "XOR" (exclusive or) gate it would secrete an "off".
The result is that bacteria can be enslaved to become part of a hive mind computer, performing the will of a central controller. Professor Voigt describes, "We think of electronic currents as doing computation, but any substrate can act like a computer, including gears, pipes of water, and cells. Here, we've taken a colony of bacteria that are receiving two chemical signals from their neighbors, and have created the same logic gates that form the basis of silicon computing."
While the bacteria are relatively large versus the latest 32 nm process gates (3000x3000 nm v 160x35 nm), they enjoy the advantage of being self-healing, reprogrammable, and potentially easier to stack in
Much like a miniature Borg hive, the little microbes may one day stack into a matrix that provides their fundamental nutrient needs and houses them. Collectively, they will then become a single biochemical computer.
Professor Voigt comments, "The purpose of programming cells is not to have them overtake electronic computers."
Bay Area biotech star Life Technologies, in Carlsbad, Cal., is already looking to commercialize the technology from the paper. They're working to make software tools that will allow genetic engineers to easily "program" bacteria into a specific gate, much like circuit designers might spec out their circuit in a CAD program.
Professor Voigt's team is currently working towards building a bacteria computer capable of accepting commands in a formal language system, similar to how modern computers receive commands in assembly (translated to machine) language.
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12/10/2010 10:07:21 AM
E. coli have asexual reproduction, so there is no danger of an AND gate producing and XOR gate off-spring. But the life expectancy of a single E. Coli bacterium is probably not more that a few days under the best conditions. How would this sort of computing device survive? It would seem that the systems required to keep this sort of device functioning would be quite a bit more complicated than the device itself.
Is this another answer to a question nobody asked (like the Segway, for example)?
RE: Life span
12/11/2010 9:53:49 AM
Indeed. How to replace a "logic gate" when one dies in such a manner as to keep the system functioning is the big question. Fortunately, we know that such a thing is possible, as this is a basic requirement of all multicellular life. And, basically, this is a multicellular lifeform of sorts, since it requires several different cell types working together to form the whole system.
"We are going to continue to work with them to make sure they understand the reality of the Internet. A lot of these people don't have Ph.Ds, and they don't have a degree in computer science." -- RIM co-CEO Michael Lazaridis
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