Scientists make computer circuitry from bacteria

Researchers at the University of California, San Francisco have managed to create a miniature computer from bacteria by engineering E. coli to mimic logic gates.

The scientists have managed to build logic gates like those found in computers inside cells that can then create circuits by rewiring communications between cells, essentially constructing a small working version of a computer.

By programming cells in this manner the scientists have opened up the possibility for more intricate functions, which apparently include areas such as agriculture and the production of pharmaceutical materials and industrial chemicals, according to synthetic biologist and associate professor Christopher A Voight.

This would work by engineering the bacteria to mimic a computer’s digital processes that use logic operations to stream 1s and 0s in order to produce functions of greater complexity, een potentially producing what could be regarded as software.

 “We think of electronic currents as doing computation, but any substrate can act like a computer, including gears, pipes of water, and cells,” Voigt said. “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.”

The findings show how the team were able to build simple logic gates out of genes, inserting them into separate E.coli strains.  The gates then control the release and sensing of a chemical signal, allowing the gates to be connected among bacteria in the same manner that they would do on a circuit board.

“The purpose of programming cells is not to have them overtake electronic computers,” explained Voigt, whom whose work was included among the Scientist’s Top 10 Innovations back in 2009. “Rather, it is to be able to access all of the things that biology can do in a reliable, programmable way.”

It is noted that the developments have helped form a partnership with biotechnology firm Life Technologies, with the aim of using the genetic circuits and design algorithms by integrating them into a professional software package as a tool for genetic engineers in the same way that computer-aided design is used for the development of advanced computer chips and architecture.

In fact it is the long term goal of the researchers to be able to programme cells using a formal language in a similar way to the languages used to write computer code.

It is thought that the automation of these complex operations and design choices will advance basic and applied research in synthetic biology. In the future, Voigt said the goal is to be able to program cells using a formal language that is similar to the programming languages currently used to write computer code.