June 1, 2023


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Scientific project takes the first step towards a biological computer

3 min read

Scientific project seeks to verify if living beings such as bacteria can create neural networks that allow them to have artificial intelligence.

The research takes place at the De Novo Synthetic Biology Laboratory of the Institute for Integrative Systems Biology (I2SysBio), a joint center of the Higher Council for Scientific Research (CSIC) of Spain and the University of Valencia (UV). In addition, it is funded by the United States Office of Naval Research.

The scientific research group works with genetic engineering to make bacteria react to a stimulus associated with a linguistic signal. The goal is for this population of bacteria to be able to ‘read’ Morse code, a next step for using living organisms in computing.

Like any other branch of computing, it combines hardware (bacteria) with software, the program to use the information. The living cells in the experiment belong to the Escherichia coli species and are genetically modified to react to a certain signal, providing a computer that does not need software. Biological computing studies how to use elements of nature to process and store information.

They have found that these bacteria are capable of learning because a memory has been incorporated into their genes: they have already been capable of learning to play tatete playing against humans and receiving as their only knowledge whether they have won or lost. assures the director of the laboratory, the CSIC scientist Alfonso Jaramillo “Now we are designing intelligent bacteria that are capable of learning to decode signals.” The principle they apply is based on physics, on the phenomenon known as resonance.

Jaramillo, who began his research career as a theoretical physicist at the Institute of Corpuscular Physics (IFIC), another CSIC and UV joint center, explains, “The particles that make up matter have a characteristic vibration frequency. If you act on them with an equal frequency, they will vibrate with the maximum possible amplitude.

The research group modifies some bacterial genes so that they ‘oscillate’ (react) to a certain signal. In this case, they receive a chemical pulse with a specific time duration like Morse code signals (made up of long and short pulses). The resonance instructions are stored in the memory of the bacteria. Upon receiving the programmed signal, the bacteria generate proteins that cause the bacteria to light up (fluorescence), in a process similar to that of the synapses in our brain.

Use mushrooms as a supercomputer

Describes the CSIC scientist, “We thus obtain a neuromorphic system, a population of bacteria that functions as a super neuron.” According to Jaramillo, in the future the sum of the reactions of this population of bacteria would be capable of decoding any letter of the Morse code.

At the moment they could only read one letter at a time, but this is the first step to create in living organisms what in computing is known as an ‘artificial neural network’, a concept inspired by biology, where a set of units (neurons) are connected to each other to transmit signals.

The scientist points out, “If we could use this system in fungi, which have been shown to be able to conduct electricity and create networks between trees, we could create something similar to the planet Pandora from the movie Avatar.”

The research tries to show that biological organisms can be used to do computation, a biological computer that, according to Jaramillo, has advantages even over a quantum computer. “A living organism does not consume electricity, it is robust to damage, it can be integrated into other living organisms, it has a low cost and it reproduces itself,” he added.

Published by Iraic.info, news and information agency.

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