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How bacteria could run the Internet of Things


Biologically created computing devices could one day be as commonplace as today’s microprocessors and microchips, some scientists believe. Consider DNA, the carrier of genetic information and the principal component of chromosomes; it's showing promise as a data storage medium.

A recent study (PDF) suggests taking matters further and using microbes to network and communicate at nanoscale. The potential is highly attractive for the Internet of Things (IoT), where concealability and unobtrusiveness may be needed for the technology to become completely ubiquitous.

Advantages to an organic version of IoT include not only the tiny size but also the autonomous nature of bacteria, which includes inherent propulsion. There’s “an embedded, natural propeller motor,” the scientists from Queen Mary University in London explain of the swimming functions microbes perform.

At this point, research into the Internet of Bio-Nano Things (IoBNT) is at an early stage, and the Queen Mary University researchers are predominantly explaining how similarities between bacteria and computing could be exploited. But the study is intriguing.

"The microbes share similarities with components of typical computer IoT devices," wrote Raphael Kim and Stefan Posland in their paper published on the subject. “This presents a strong argument for bacteria to be considered as a living form of Internet of Things (IoT) device.”

Environmental IoT is one area they say could benefit. In smart cities, for example, bacteria could be programmed to sense for pollutants. Microbes have good chemical-sensing functions and could turn out to work better than electronic sensors. In fact, the authors say that microbes share some of the same sensing, actuating, communicating and processing abilities that the computerized IoT has.

In the case of sensing and actuating, bacteria can detect chemicals, electromagnetic fields, light, mechanical stress and temperature — just what’s required in a traditional printed circuit board-based sensor. Plus, the microbes respond. They can produce colored proteins, for example. And not only that, they respond in a more nuanced way compared to the chip-based sensors. They can be more sensitive, as one example.

The aforementioned DNA, built into bacteria, functions as a control unit, both for processing and storing data. Genomic DNA would contain the instructions for some functioning, and plasmids — which is another form of DNA related to how genes get into organisms — customize process functions through gene addition and subtraction.

Networking is also addressed. Transceivers are also in bacterial IoT, the team says. The importing and exporting of molecules act as a form of signaling pathway, and a DNA exchange between two cells can take place. That’s called “molecular communication” and is described as a bacterial nanonetwork. Digital-to-DNA and back to DNA again is a DNA-related area currently showing promise.

Bacteria should become a “substrate to build a biological version of the Internet of Things,” the scientists say. Interestingly, similar to how traditional IoT has been propelled forward by tech hobbyists mucking around with Arduino microcontrollers and Raspberry Pi educational mini-computers, Kim and Posland reckon it will be do-it-yourself biology that will kick-start IoBNT. They point out that easily obtainable educational products like the Amino Labs kit already allow the generation of specific colors from bacteria, for example.

“Currently, tools and techniques to run small-scale experiments with micro-organisms are widely available to the general public, through various channels, including maker spaces.”

The team also suggest that hypothetically the “gamification of bacteria” could become a part of the experimentation. Biotic games exist. The researchers propose “to utilize the DIY biology movement and gamification techniques to leverage user engagement and introduction to bacteria.”

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