A 'living' computer: cells growing on a bed of carbon nanofibres
Computers built from living cells sounds like science fiction, but Manchester scientists are making them.
A team at Manchester Metropolitan University have been chosen to lead a Europe-wide project, Bactocom, looking at 'synthetic biology'.
The team aims to harness the 'inherently messy' power of nature to build 'self-programming' bacterial devices within three years.
They say they could create antibiotics or be used to detect pollution.
Dr Martyn Amos is heading the Manchester team and he explains that as far-fetched as the idea of growing computers might be, the reality is much closer than most people would think.
"We already have simple devices available to us now, but they're not the general-purpose computers that we're used to.
"I prefer the term 'computing devices', as these cellular micro-machines are programmed to do fairly specific tasks.
"However, they do exist, although we're still at a very early stage in their development."
If the team is successful, then the subsequent 'computing devices' could be used to create new drugs, aid environmental clean-up or allow the production of bio-fuels - though Dr Amos is quick to point out that they are far from limited to just those tasks.
"These are only the applications that have been anticipated so far.
"I think the really interesting stuff will emerge once we have a handle on how to harness and control the way that cells communicate.
"Once we have that, we offer the possibility of building bacterial 'brains' that are capable of rudimentary decision making."
Dr Amos says the process works because the cells have a predisposition for problem-solving.
"Bacteria such as E. coli may be thought of as micro-machines that process information about their own state and the world around them.
"We want to be able to program their behaviour, so that they perform useful, human-defined tasks, such as generating an antibiotic or detecting pollution.
"This re-engineering has, until now, been quite difficult, as biology is inherently messy.
"We want to turn the randomness of nature to our advantage by building a prototype machine that uses 'evolution in a dish' to design new bacterial programs."
Using 'less bad' solutions
That proposed use of the 'randomness of nature' seems remarkable, as the chaotic sense of the natural world would seem to be one that can't be harnessed.
Synthetic biology: a combination of science and engineering to design and build new biological functions and systems
Evolution in a dish: using a process of artificial selection to create evolutionary-style changes within laboratory-grown cellular systems
Yet Dr Amos says that using it is actually "easier than directly engineering a solution."
"Biological engineering currently works along the lines of the 'scrapheap challenge', where different parts from multiple sources are pieced together to construct a device.
"This is time-consuming and expensive, so we thought it might be better to let the power of selection do the job for us.
"We engineer cells to piece together their own ideas on how to solve the specified problem.
"Most of the solutions generated will not even work, but some will be 'less bad' than others.
"We allow the cells that generated these ['less bad'] answers to throw out copies of their solution, to be taken up and maybe improved on by the next generation of cells.
"Gradually, we see better solutions emerging, as the population slowly refines the initial rough drafts."
Dr Amos, a senior lecturer with MMU's Novel Computation Group will lead the £1.75m European Commission project from Manchester in collaboration with teams in France, Spain, Germany and Belgium.