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Home » Dave’s DiegesesApril 2005 » Dave’s Diegesis: Bacterium® 4 Processor

Dave’s Diegesis: Bacterium® 4 Processor

Any sufficiently advanced bug is indistinguishable from a feature.
Rich Kulawiec

Sorry this week’s column is a little late; I was busy troubleshooting Terry’s laptop because it had a virus. As I was disinfecting his computer, I thought about the possibilities of biological processing through engineering bacteria. It’s a fascinating topic, and I could tell Terry was enraptured by my explanation. Unfortunately, he got pulled away into a pre-game meeting before I could finish explaining this new computational methodology. At least I get to tell my readers about this novel nexus of life and artifice.

Ron Weiss is a major figure in a new inter-disciplinary field that could be labeled “synthetic biology.” He is an assistant professor of electrical engineering and molecular biology at Princeton University, and he programs cells by developing and inserting synthetic gene networks into cells. By being able to control biological material on a cellular level as if it were a living computer, Weiss anticipates his research will advance living tissue engineering, biosensing and effecting, biomaterial fabrication, and the understanding of naturally occurring biological processes.

BacteriacomputerHis team was able to manipulate E. coli colony to glow with either red or green light in response to a signal sent by a different set of E. coli. Although we’re probably decades away from full control of cells through artificial mechanisms, one of the first applications of this technique may enable us to detect bioterrorist compounds with greater efficacy. Unlike current methods of detection, bacteria could be programmed to “have an exquisite capability to sense molecules in the environment,” Weiss said. “The bull’s-eye could tell you: This is where the anthrax is.”

Weiss exploits the widely found biological phenomenon of “regulatory cascades,” which in computer programming terms are simply algorithmic processes to respond to a set of stimuli. When the naturally occurring sets of instructions are replaced by artificial means, Weiss calls them “synthetic transcriptional cascades.” In a paper submitted to the Proceedings of the National Academy of the Sciences, Weiss states that although there is a certain level of predictability in the output of programmed cells, phenotypic variations in cell populations introduced variable reactions, and these differences are more pronounced in longer cascades.

I’m encouraged by this new fusion of biology and engineering, both genetic and electrical. Maybe the next time I fix Terry’s computer, I’ll be giving it an aspirin rather than downloading a software patch. Take two of these and your laptop will be able to go over the advanced scouting reports in the morning.

Every Friday, Dave McCarty will join us to discuss a topic of interest to him and probably no one else but the author of this site.


Forgive me for any typos, but the dog insists on sleeping between me and the keyboard.

These advances have me excited as they are steps toward technology only seen in science fiction. The first thing that sprung to mind upon reading that it may be capable to use bacteria to facilitate tissue regeneration were the accelerated healing tanks made famous by Luke Skywalker in Empire Strikes Back, and to a lesser extent, seen in the cinematic trainwreck that was Starship Troopers.

Also, if you can begin to reprogram bacteria to mimic the properties of cells in the human body, might they be able to be used to suppliment human immune systems? If botulism can make you look younger, why can't E.coli cure the common cold? I'll be looking forward to this being a reality, even if it isn't in the near future.

Please pet Captain Brock for me.

My hesitation with programming bacteria and enabling it computational power is that it might somehow develop intelligence on its own. I don't pretend to know how likely or not this would be, but the juxtaposition of AI and programmable cells might signal extinction for humanity.

Not that I'm a doomsayer or anything. Just let me listen to my Smiths CD in peace!

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