Washington, May 20 : A team of biology and mathematics experts has created 'living computers' by adding genes to Escherichia coli bacteria, showing that computing in living cells is feasible.
The researchers from Davidson College, North Carolina and Missouri Western State University, Missouri, say that their work opens the door to a number of applications like data storage.
They say that their work may also provide a tool for manipulating genes for genetic engineering.
A research article describing the study, published in the open access Journal of Biological Engineering, says that the bacterial computers created by the research team were able to solve a classic mathematical puzzle, known as the burnt pancake problem.
The burnt pancake problem involves a stack of pancakes of different sizes, each of which has a golden and a burnt side. The aim is to sort the stack so the largest pancake is on the bottom and all pancakes are golden side up. Each flip reverses the order and the orientation of one or several consecutive pancakes, and the aim is to stack them properly in the fewest number of flips.
During the study, fragments of DNA were used as the pancakes.
The researchers added genes from a different type of bacterium to enable the E. coli to flip the DNA 'pancakes'.
Such genes included a gene that made the bacteria resistant to an antibiotic, but only when the DNA fragments had been flipped into the correct order.
The researchers said that the time required to reach the mathematical solution in the bugs reflected the minimum number of flips needed to solve the burnt pancake problem.
"The system offers several potential advantages over conventional computers," said lead researcher Karmella Haynes.
"A single flask can hold billions of bacteria, each of which could potentially contain several copies of the DNA used for computing. These 'bacterial computers' could act in parallel with each other, meaning that solutions could potentially be reached quicker than with conventional computers, using less space and at a lower cost," Haynes added.
The researcher says that besides parallelism, bacterial computing also has the potential to utilize repair mechanisms and, of course, can evolve after repeated use.