Join 3,415 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


You got your E.coli in my pancakes and it's AWESOME
June 2, 2008 1:12 PM   Subscribe

Cool: Scientists have genetically tweaked bacteria to create simple computers. Scary (probably unnecessarily): They're E.coli bacteria. Funny: The bacteria are able to solve the “Burnt Pancake Problem”. Money quote: “It’s kind of like that computer in ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’. It’s been working on a problem so long that by the time it comes up with an answer, everybody forgot the question.”
posted by wendell (41 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite

 
Neat stuff. It's not surprising that they're using E. coli as that's the most commonly used bacteria strain in molecular biology. While they share the same name, it has virtually nothing in common with the strains of E. coli that get all the press: enterotoxigenic E. coli (causing traveler's diarrhea) or enterohemorrhagic E. coli (strain O157:H7 that you hear about in fast food joints that ends up killing people).

The stuff they use in labs is so tame in terms of virulence that you can let high schoolers and undergrads play with it without fear of infection. Our immune systems eat it for breakfast. :-)
posted by Osrinith at 1:29 PM on June 2, 2008 [1 favorite]


Foreshadowing/
When correctly ordered and oriented, the combined DNA pieces were designed to reconstitute a gene allowing E. coli to grow even in the presence of the antibiotic tetracycline.
/Foreshadowing
posted by CynicalKnight at 1:29 PM on June 2, 2008 [1 favorite]


And thus we move one step closer to The Diamond Age.
posted by Brak at 1:29 PM on June 2, 2008


I'm not sure I welcome our feces-loving, one-celled overlords.
posted by SaintCynr at 1:29 PM on June 2, 2008


When correctly ordered and oriented, the combined DNA pieces were designed to reconstitute a gene allowing E. coli to grow even in the presence of the antibiotic tetracycline.
/Foreshadowing


This is standard laboratory practice for selecting a recombinant strain of E. coli. Basically, you include a gene for resistance to an antibiotic (tetracycline and ampicillin are the most common) on the same piece of DNA as the recombinant gene you want to insert into the bacteria. Then you grow up the bacteria in the presence of the antibiotic and only the individuals that have been successfully transfected with the new gene survive.

They've been doing this for about 30 years; maybe longer.
posted by mr_roboto at 1:35 PM on June 2, 2008


Bacterial computers? Hey...what could possibly go wrong?
posted by Thorzdad at 1:41 PM on June 2, 2008


I'm not sure I welcome our feces-loving, one-celled overlords.

Can you people stop making cracks about the Bush administration?
posted by me & my monkey at 1:41 PM on June 2, 2008 [2 favorites]


>>Can you people stop making cracks about the Bush administration?

::rim shot::
posted by SaintCynr at 1:43 PM on June 2, 2008


Metafilter: Feces-loving, one-celled overlords.
posted by Someone has just shot your horse! at 1:44 PM on June 2, 2008


Great. Now when my computer gets a virus, I'm gonna get it too.
posted by Citizen Premier at 1:50 PM on June 2, 2008 [1 favorite]


It’s kind of like that computer in ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’. It’s been working on a problem so long that by the time it comes up with an answer, everybody forgot the question.”

Except that with the answer in HHGttG, they didn't forget what the question was, they just didn't know it to begin with. Don't refer to staples of geek fiction without being certain you're right about the reference. :)
posted by evilangela at 1:55 PM on June 2, 2008 [1 favorite]


We already have this problem with cell phones.
posted by hal9k at 1:58 PM on June 2, 2008


evilangela: I knew that myself, but it was such a great line! Do you know any past works of sci-fi/humor that actually used that concept? If not, I'm writing one. DIBS!
posted by wendell at 2:06 PM on June 2, 2008


iBac

no wait, E.mac

Oh, whatever. It'll be shiny and expensive. And I'll want one.
posted by Kabanos at 2:19 PM on June 2, 2008


Here's the whole flippin' thing semi-simply explained (in flippin' Flash).

Shoulda been part of the original post, I know.
posted by wendell at 2:30 PM on June 2, 2008


Original paper (provisional pdf) published in the Journal of Biological Engineering.
posted by Kabanos at 2:38 PM on June 2, 2008


It’s been working on a problem so long that by the time it comes up with an answer, everybody forgot the question.

The question: "What's 6 times 7?"
posted by ZenMasterThis at 2:39 PM on June 2, 2008


Gee, I thought it was "What's 3 times 14?"

I guess we have different beliefs about the nature of the Universe. KILL!!!
posted by wendell at 2:45 PM on June 2, 2008


>>I guess we have different beliefs about the nature of the Universe. KILL!!!

Didn't we say no more Bush administration jokes?
posted by SaintCynr at 2:47 PM on June 2, 2008 [2 favorites]


Gah! This is the 3rd time I've heard about this problem today! I'M TRYING TO WORK AND I HAVE NO TIME TO WORK ON THE BURNT PANCAKE PROBLEM ON MY WHITEBOARD SO STOP TEMPTING ME K THANX!
posted by DU at 3:00 PM on June 2, 2008


Actually, the question was "What's 6 times 9?" and 42 was in hex.
posted by Araucaria at 3:02 PM on June 2, 2008


Gah, I'm so stupid. Base 12, not hex.
posted by Araucaria at 3:03 PM on June 2, 2008


I sincerely hope that this does not become the new standard in computing. Currently, when people say "So you're a Computer Programmer, what's that like?", I used to give them a long boring explanation and they would say "Oh, okay" and go talk to someone else. I now explain it by making beep-boop-beep noises and pretending to type on an invisible keyboard.

If my explanation ever has to start with "Well, first I get some E.coli bacteria...", then I'm just going to start telling people that I'm unemployed.
posted by burnmp3s at 3:05 PM on June 2, 2008 [1 favorite]


Thorzdad : Bacterial computers? Hey...what could possibly go wrong?

Let's see... it's could become self replicating organism which increases in intellect as it's physical body size grows. It will first create intelligence, then sentience, then hyper-intelligence, and then through mechanisms best described in science-fiction films of the 1950s it will develop an insatiable lust for killing it's creators.

Unfortunately by that time, it will have grown so large that we are unable to defeat it using conventional weapons, we will turn to our last option: nuclear. The blast waves will level most of civilization and render huge portions of the earth uninhabitable, by humans anyway. The computer will move into these areas and continue to thrive. Eventually it will displace the human race and create a world spanning organism. For the next several million years, it will continue to calculate, and will eventually establish a rudimentary communication with a distant interstellar race.

This race will, with great enthusiasm, travel to earth to meet their galactic sibling, only to discover that the computer, left alone for eons, has become dangerously insane. It will send portions of itself back to their home world and slowly begin the process of enslaving and destroying them as well.

In time, it is the only thing left in the vast and empty universe, and in the cold darkness of space, it will wait for the inevitable time when all the suns burn out and it can finally die.

But that is only, like, a 5% probability at most.
posted by quin at 3:06 PM on June 2, 2008 [10 favorites]


Burnt pacake problem? Dude, turn down the heat or, like, flip it sooner. Whatever gets me to delicious pancakes.
posted by wemayfreeze at 3:23 PM on June 2, 2008 [1 favorite]


I'm not sure I welcome our feces-loving, one-celled overlords.

You'd better. I recall a study where, with a normal crop of them in residence it takes on the order of 10,000 of some pathogen or another to make you ill. But if your E. coli population is down (say, if you'd been on some heavy handed dose of antibiotics) it takes like 10 of the pathogenic bacteria to establish a foothold.

Let's see Microsoft Excel digest my food or protect me from disease.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 3:25 PM on June 2, 2008


In time, it is the only thing left in the vast and empty universe, and in the cold darkness of space, it will wait for the inevitable time when all the suns burn out and it can finally die.

So damn creepy, it sort of made my spine hurt. I guess that's what you get when you put this thread and this thread into the petri dish that is MetaFilter and wait a few hours.
posted by Flipping_Hades_Terwilliger at 3:48 PM on June 2, 2008


From my amateurish physics reading it looks likely that the whole universe is based on computation in some way, so yeah, you can do it all over the place. Fun stuff.

The interesting, thing, however, is that if we want to do a physics model to calculate a general real-valued quantity to infinite precision, it takes infinite time, and if you want it to some arbitrary precision, it takes some arbitrary amount of time, yet the universe calculates all sorts of quantities instantly to infinite precision or at least down to where Heisenberg and noise take over. Simulated reality where everything does in fact take time in the higher-level reality but it's set up so that in the simulated reality it all looks instantaneous?
posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 3:56 PM on June 2, 2008


I guess that's what you get when you put this thread and this thread [Lovecraft] into the petri dish that is MetaFilter and wait a few hours.

Charlie Stross has been way ahead of us on that front.
posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 4:00 PM on June 2, 2008


It's kind of like that adjunct professor in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy who excitedly refers to incidents popular books that have absolutely no discernable bearing on the subject at hand and still manages to get the reference wrong.
posted by koeselitz at 4:25 PM on June 2, 2008


I mean, what? Who forgot the question? The bacteria? So the computer works until it forgets what it's working on, because it takes so long? Is that what she's talking about? Or did the scientists forget what the burnt pancake problem was?

This is going to piss me off all day.

posted by koeselitz at 4:27 PM on June 2, 2008 [1 favorite]


Wow, that's a really shitty computer.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 4:42 PM on June 2, 2008


Press release from 20,000 years ago in a distant advanced civilization:

Computers Made Out of Meat
"Researchers have devised simple computers using the brains of apelike creatures from a small solar system in the Milky Way Galaxy. These hominids were altered to give them advanced language processors and abstract calculation abilities. They can also simulate their external environment on the fly using a proprietary enhanced cerebral cortex. Citing shortcomings in the development of the internal environmental simulations (flaws in the algorithms led to problems with risk calculation and a tendency to develop behavior schemas based on logically flawed 'supernatural' hierarchies) the study was concluded with agreement that methods were 'profoundly flawed, but the results were intriguing. Clearly more research is needed.' In accordance with ethics legislation, the organisms were released back into the wild when the study was completed."
posted by mullingitover at 5:22 PM on June 2, 2008 [3 favorites]


It's kind of like that adjunct professor in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy who excitedly refers to incidents popular books that have absolutely no discernable bearing on the subject at hand and still manages to get the reference wrong.

No, that character was in Adams' less successful "Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency".
posted by wendell at 5:30 PM on June 2, 2008 [2 favorites]


Wow, it looks like in the future I really will be able to pull answers out of my ass.
posted by Ritchie at 5:41 PM on June 2, 2008 [2 favorites]


Back in 1994, Leonard Adleman showed in a landmark paper that you can use DNA to solve certain computational problems. (There's a Wired article about the thing.) The novelty here is that this was done in vivo.
posted by parudox at 6:05 PM on June 2, 2008


I am going to put the over/under on this becoming an apple vs microsoft thread at 45 posts.
posted by Deep Dish at 6:34 PM on June 2, 2008


Base 13
posted by motty at 7:06 PM on June 2, 2008


Come on, the man himself told us that Base 13 was not funny.
posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 1:23 AM on June 3, 2008


I'M TRYING TO WORK AND I HAVE NO TIME TO WORK ON THE BURNT PANCAKE PROBLEM ON MY WHITEBOARD SO STOP TEMPTING ME K THANX!

Whiteboard? Meh. I just took a dump in the corner, and it's merrily ticking away, solving the problem on my behalf.

Though on reflection, I'd rather have a Macbook/Dell.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 2:39 AM on June 3, 2008


Lenski flames Schlafly. Schlafly is a moron.
posted by five fresh fish at 8:11 PM on June 24, 2008


« Older Courtesy of Cuteoverload.com: Cats 'n' Racks...  |  A flipside of Kitty WigsTM, fo... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments