PIONEER of the digital computer, Manchester is leading the way with the next generation of 'wet computers'.
Scientists at Manchester Metropolitan University are at the forefront of efforts to build an organic computer that uses living cells rather than silicon chips.
"Synthetic biology" has the potential to revolutionise healthcare, energy and agriculture, and an academic from MMU is leading a new research project to drive the field forward.
Dr Martyn Amos, of MMU’s Novel Computation Group, is leading a £1.75 million European Commission project called BACTOCOM with the goal of producing a ‘computer’ platform to harness the power of bacteria.
MMU is directing seven teams in five countries with the aim of building "self-programming" bacterial devices within three years.
"Bacteria, such as E. coli, may be thought of as biological 'micro-machines' that process information about their own state and the world around them," explains Dr Amos.
"We want to be able to program their behaviour, so that they perform useful, human-defined tasks, such as generating an antibiotic or detecting pollution. This re-engineering has, until now, been quite difficult, as biology is inherently messy.
"We want to turn the randomness of nature to our advantage, by building a prototype machine that uses 'evolution in a dish' to design new bacterial programs," says Amos, who completed the world's first PhD in DNA computing.
Much of the work will entail ‘wet computing’ creating communities of cells and influencing their behaviour with chemical and environmental stimuli. For instance, a cell community might be formed that demonstrates a circadian rhythmn, so they are ‘awake’ when we are.
Possible future applications of the resulting "microbe-machines" could include new drugs, environmental clean-up and bio-fuels.
NB: Martyn Amos will lead the project from MMU, in collaboration with partners in France, Spain, Germany and Belgium. The project funding of 1.95 million euros has been obtained via the European Commission Seventh Framework Programme, and commenced on 1/2/10.