Saffron's Space

So a calculator made out of E. coli cells might not be the most classiest thing you’ve ever heard of but that’s what we’re disucussing in this weeks When Science Fiction Becomes Reality.

So what is this bacterial calculator? Well some clever scientists over at MIT have decided to scrap the idea of converting bacterial signalling into digital and instead have embraced the analogue.

In simple terms they have put pieces of DNA into these E. coli cells which causes them to emit a signal in the presence of different substances. Depending on how much of the substance is present the cells will release a corresponding amount of signal.

Now imagine, if you have two cells, each detecting a different substance but emitting the same signal. If you were to measure the amount of signal being outputted that would tell you the combined amount of each of the original substances- there you have addition.

Cells as living calculators

A similar principle is used for subtraction, division, multiplication and power functions. Incredible!

But what’s the point? I hear you ask. You already have a very nice calculator that can do all that. Well the scientists are hoping that in the future cells such as these will be able to measure and detect abnormal cells, such as cancer cells, and then eliminate them from the body.

It’s a simple system using feedback responses but an ingenious invention and has many future applications. Let’s take it one step further. Everyone’s seen Dr. Who (if you haven’t go and watch it, then come back), where the nanobots can enter someone, diagnose the problem, fix it and then leave all in the blink of an eye. Well couldn’t this technology be used for just that? You inject the cells, they move around the body and when they come into contact with a cell which is producing chemicals associated with cancer these little angels start producing their own chemicals which ultimately results in the offending cell dying. Cancer cured; just as good as any nanobot.

Aside from detecting and destroying abnormal cells, these kinds of ‘computerised cells’ could achieve all kinds of other things. What about detecting radiation levels? Or poisonous gases?

What if these clever little cells could tell us how a person feels based on the hormones and chemicals they’re producing?

Of course detector cells such as this have other uses too, let’s say you are a lonely wanderer on another planet. Roaming the belly of a dark tunnel. What do you use for light? Simple! You pull out your bacteria, expose them to the right substance and they become luminescent, lighting your way back to the planet’s surface.

How do you think these computerised bacteria could be used? Where will this new advance take your sci-fi dreams?

Read the full paper here.

(Image from MIT website)


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