How to teach bacteria to ‘read’ Morse code signals

A 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 towards using living organisms in computing. The project seeks to verify whether these living beings 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 of Integrative Systems Biology (I2SysBio), a joint center of the Higher Council for Scientific Research (CSIC) and the University of Valencia (UV). Additionally, it is funded by the United States Office of Naval Research.

The project seeks to get bacteria to decode messages without the need for computer programs

O biological computation studies how to use elements of nature to process and store information. Like any other branch of computing, it combines hardware (bacteria) with software, the program to use the information. The live 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.

From playing tic-tac-toe to decoding signals

These bacteria are able to learn thanks to the fact that a memory has been incorporated into their genes: they were already able to learn to play tic-tac-toe by playing against humans and receiving as their only knowledge whether they won or lost. “Now we are designing intelligent bacteria that are capable of learning to decode signals”, says the laboratory’s director, CSIC scientist Alfonso Jaramillo. The principle they apply is based on physics, on the phenomenon known as resonance.

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

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Fluorescence in bacteria. /CSIC

What Jaramillo’s team is doing is modifying some of the bacteria’s genes so that they ‘oscillate’ (react) to a certain signal. In this case, they receive a chemical pulse with a specific duration of time, such as Morse code signals (composed of long and short pulses). The ‘instructions’ of the MRI are stored in the bacteria’s memory. Upon receiving the programmed signal, the bacteria generates 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

“In this way, we obtain a neuromorphic system, a population of bacteria that works like a superneuron”, describes the CSIC scientist. According to Jaramillo, in the future the sum of the reactions of this population of bacteria would be able to decode any letter of the Morse code.

We could create something similar to the planet Pandora from the movie Avatar

Afonso Jaramillo

At the time they could only read one letter at a time, but this is the first step towards creating 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 together to transmit signals.

“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”, says Jaramillo.

The project aims to demonstrate that biological organisms can be used to do computation, a biological computer that, according to Jaramillo, has advantages even over the quantum computer. “A living organism does not consume electricity, is resistant to damage, can be integrated with other living organisms, has a low cost and reproduces itself”, he summarizes.

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