Bacterial 'Computer' Solves Math Problem

Modified E. coli bacteria were successfully engineered to solve a difficult mathematical puzzle, according to research published today in the Journal of Biological Engineering.


(Scanning electron micrograph of E. coli bacteria)

The DNA of the bacteria was modified to create a special purpose 'computing device' to solve the Hamiltonian Path Problem, a surprisingly intractable brainteaser. A simple example would be plotting the shortest possible route that would take you to the ten largest cities in the US from New York City to San Jose, California.

This simple problem is surprisingly difficult to solve. There are over 3.5 million possible routes to choose from, and a regular computer must try them out one at a time to find the shortest. Alternatively, a computer made from millions of bacteria can look at every route simultaneously...

The researchers coded a simplified version of the problem, using just three cities, by modifying the DNA of Escherichia coli bacteria. The cities were represented by a combination of genes causing the bacteria to glow red or green, and the possible routes between the cities were explored by the random shuffling of DNA. Bacteria producing the correct answer glowed both colours, turning them yellow.

The experiment worked, and the scientists checked the yellow bacteria's answer by examining their DNA sequence.

Fans of sf writer Greg Bear recall his intellectual cells, specially engineered to solve problems.

His first E. coli mutations had had the learning capacity of planarian worms; he had run them through simple T-mazes, giving sugar rewards. They had soon outperformed planaria...

Via Bacteria make computers look like pocket calculators.

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