Researchers at the UCSF (University of California at San Francisco) have announced they discovered a way to use Escherichia Coli bacteria as programmable computers. Each bacterium can be logic gate behaving like a silicon one.
Using genetic engineering the researchers have managed to build into the bacteria cell a molecular system that behaves as a logic gate and interact with other bacteria like logic gates connected by an electronic circuit. The idea is not to create a computer using bacteria rather than transistors, rather to be able to program bacteria in an easy and predictable way.
The possibility of programming cells means to be able to exploit 4 billion years of evolution. We are already using bacteria to help recovering from disasters like the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. To do that genetic engineers have manipulated their DNA to have them eat and process oil decomposing it into a harmless set of molecules. The process is complex and this result at the UCSF may open the way to a much easier way of programming bacteria.
The implications may be enormous in many area, from health care to energy. As an example, in health care doctors might eventually be able to program the trillions of bacteria we host in our body to help us fighting cancer, in energy we re already looking for bacteria to generate biofuel from waste at an industrial rate.
Of course, one has to wonder what would be the effect of hackers hijacking bacteria ….