Below is Clive Cookson's article from Saturday's FT (30th October) - he is its science correspondent -and I've ripped off the photo accompanying the article as well which was titled 'Experiments with E. coli could lead to new biological computers' . I don't think the FT will come after me for theft.
A biological computer, in which the basic components are made from bacteria rather than silicon circuitry, has taken a step from science fantasy toward reality at Imperial College London.
Researchers there have built “logic gates”, the basis of digital information processing, from genetically engineered E. coli, the bacteria that populate the human gut. These are the first biological logic gates proven to function like electronic ones.
“Logic gates are the fundamental building blocks in silicon circuitry that our entire digital age is based on,” says Richard Kitney, professor of biomedical systems engineering at Imperial. “Without them, we could not process digital information.
“Now that we have demonstrated that we can replicate these parts using bacteria and DNA, we hope that our work could lead to a new generation of biological processors, whose applications in information processing could be as important as their electronic equivalents,” Kitney says.
The Imperial team suggests that bacterial logic gates could form the building blocks of microscopic biological computers – although these are still many years away.
Possible applications include sensors that swim inside arteries, detecting the build-up of harmful plaque and rapidly delivering medications to the affected zone, and sensors that detect and destroy cancer cells inside the body.
In a paper in the journal Nature Communications, the scientists describe how they transferred two linked regulatory genes from Pseudomonas syringae, a bacterium that infects plants, into E. coli.
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These genes are activated separately by organic chemicals, such as sugars – and both need to be switched on at the same time to produce a biological response in the bacteria. By appropriate chemical stimulation, the scientists made them respond just like an “AND gate” in a digital circuit. They went on to make a “NOT gate” and, by combining them, the more complex “NAND gate”.
Formidable practical problems remain in deciding how to connect many individual bacterial components together into a working system. As living cells, they cannot be wired together like electronic components. They will probably need to be immobilised by encapsulation in some sort of micro-fluidic device, says Martin Buck, the biology professor on the Imperial team.
“We believe that the next stage of our research could lead to a totally new type of circuitry for processing information,” Buck says. “In the future, we may see complex biological circuitry processing information using chemicals, much in the same way that our body uses them to process and store information.”