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Bacterial Computing with Engineered Populations

Bacterial Computing with Engineered Populations

Objective

The main objective of BACTOCOM is to build a simple computer, using bacteria rather than silicon. Microbes may be thought of as biological "micro-machines" that process information about their own state and the world around them. By sensing their environment, certain bacteria are able to move in response to chemical signals, allowing them to seek out food, for example. They can also communicate with other bacteria, by leaving chemical trails, or by directly exchanging genetic information. We focus on this latter mechanism.
Parts of the internal "program" of a bacterial cell (encoded by its genes, and the connections between them) may be "reprogrammed" in order to persuade it to perform human-defined tasks. By introducing artificial "circuits" made up of genetic components, we may add new behaviours or modify existing functionality within the cell. Existing examples of this include a bacterial oscillator, which causes the cells to periodically flash, and cell-based pollution detectors that can spot arsenic in drinking water. The potential for bio-engineering is huge, but the process itself is made difficult by the noisy, "messy" nature of the underlying material. Bacteria are hard to engineer, as they rarely conform to the traditional model of a computer or device, with well-defined components laid out in a fixed design.
We intend to use the inherent randomness of natural processes to our advantage, by harnessing it as a framework for biological engineering. By allowing our system to evolve, we use natural selection to build new functional biological devices. We begin with a large number of simple DNA-based components, taken from a well-understood toolbox, which may be pieced together inside the cell to form new genetic programs. A population of bacteria then absorb these components, which may (or may not) affect their behaviour. Crucially, the core of our bacterial computer is made up of engineered microbes that can detect how well they are performing, according to some external measure, such as how well they can flash in time with light pulses.The better bacteria are allowed to release their program components back into the environment in much larger numbers than the other, less impressive cells. As these "good" components are then increasingly taken up by the population of cells, in a continual cycle, we gradually refine the internal program, until the whole population performs well. There are many potential benefits to this work, from both a biological and ICT perspective. By evolving new functional structures, we gain insight into biological systems. This, in turn, may suggest new methods for silicon-based computing, in the way that both evolution and the brain have already done. In building these new bio-devices, we offer a new type of programmable, microscopic information processor that will find applications in areas as diverse as environmental sensing and clean-up, medical diagnostics and therapeutics, energy and security.
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Coordinator

THE MANCHESTER METROPOLITAN UNIVERSITY

Address

Oxford Road All Saints Building
M15 6bh Manchester

United Kingdom

Activity type

Higher or Secondary Education Establishments

EU Contribution

€ 328 426

Administrative Contact

Martyn Amos (Dr.)

Participants (6)

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INTERUNIVERSITAIR MICRO-ELECTRONICA CENTRUM

Belgium

EU Contribution

€ 13 560

CHARITE - UNIVERSITAETSMEDIZIN BERLIN

Germany

EU Contribution

€ 244 188

TECHNISCHE UNIVERSITAET MUENCHEN

Germany

EU Contribution

€ 305 374

UNIVERSIDAD POLITECNICA DE MADRID

Spain

EU Contribution

€ 241 764

UNIVERSIDAD DE CANTABRIA

Spain

EU Contribution

€ 436 239

UNIVERSITE D'EVRY-VAL D'ESSONNE

France

EU Contribution

€ 380 446

Project information

Grant agreement ID: 248919

Status

Closed project

  • Start date

    1 February 2010

  • End date

    31 July 2013

Funded under:

FP7-ICT

  • Overall budget:

    € 2 557 621

  • EU contribution

    € 1 949 997

Coordinated by:

THE MANCHESTER METROPOLITAN UNIVERSITY

United Kingdom