|"Science Friday" and Other Media Plan Stories on "Bio Computer" Research
May 22, 2008
Contact: Bill Giduz
(Editor's Note: The story of the Davidson biological computer has received tremendous media attention around the world since its recent release by BioMed. Karmella Haynes will be interviewed live on National Public Radio's "Science Friday" show with host Ira Flato on Friday, May 23, from 2:20-2:40 p.m. Other media planning to carry the story include the journal Science News, the Daily Telegraph newspaper in England, Haymarket Media in Australia, the BBC's Science and Technology Web site, and Scientific American magazine. For links to the complete list, visit this page.)
A research project by Davidson College scientists and collaborators at Missouri Western State University to create a rudimentary "biological computer" is being highlighted by one of the world's largest publishers of scientific journals.
BioMed Central, headquartered in London, publishes about 1,000 peer-reviewed articles a month in 185 peer-reviewed open access journals. Charlotte Webber of the BioMed press office noted that the journal highlights only about 15-20 of those 1,000 articles per month with releases to the lay press. "It's really only a very few we choose to publicize," Webber said.
In addition, the Davidson/MWSU project is the first time the publisher has highlighted an article from its "Journal of Biological Engineering." "We like the article because of its quirkiness, and because biotechnology is a popular science these days," said Webber.
Webber quipped that the article, "Engineering bacteria to solve the Burnt Pancake Problem," "brings new meaning to the term 'computer bug.'"
That refers to the fact that the researchers constructed a basic "living computer" by genetically altering E. coli bacteria. Webber said, "The work demonstrates that computing in living cells is feasible, opening the door to a number of applications including data storage and as a tool for manipulating genes for genetic engineering.
The Davidson team included Karmella Haynes, Howard Hughes Medical Institute adjunct assistant professor of biology, Malcolm Campbell, professor of biology, Laurie Heyer, King associate professor of mathematics, and students Jim Dickson '09, Lance Harden '09, Sabriya Rosemond (a summer intern from Hampton University), Samantha Simpson '09, and Erin Zwack '08.
The project made its public debut at the 2006 international Genetically Engineered Machines (iGEM) Jamboree at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The Davidson/MWSU team was the only one to win five awards at the competition, and was recognized by the judges as one of the top teams overall.
The burnt pancake problem involves a stack of pancakes of different sizes, each of which has a golden and a burnt side. The goal 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 (i.e. which side of the pancake is facing up) of one or several consecutive pancakes. The aim is to stack them properly in the fewest number of flips.
The Davidson/MWSU researchers used fragments of DNA as the pancakes. They added genes from a different type of bacterium to enable E. coli bacteria to flip the DNA 'pancakes'. They included components of a gene that made the bacteria resistant to an antibiotic, but only when the DNA fragments had been flipped into the correct order. The time required to reach the mathematical solution in the bugs reflects the minimum number of flips needed to solve the burnt pancake problem.
"The system offers several potential advantages over conventional computers" says Karmella Haynes, the lead researcher. "A single flask can hold billions of bacteria, each of which could potentially contain several copies of the DNA used for computing," she said. "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."
In addition to parallel computation, bacterial computing also has the potential to utilize repair mechanisms and, of course, can evolve after repeated use.
BioMed Central is an independent publishing house committed to providing immediate open access to peer-reviewed biomedical research. All original research articles published by BioMed Central are made freely and permanently accessible online immediately upon publication.
Davidson is a highly selective independent liberal arts college for 1,700 students. Since its establishment in 1837 by Presbyterians, the college has graduated 23 Rhodes Scholars and is consistently regarded as one of the top liberal arts colleges in the country.
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Posted By: Bill Giduz