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Innovation

Artificial-biology computing project starts in February

A project to develop chemical computers, which could be used to control intelligent drugs or sub-cubic-millimetre robots, will begin next month
Written by Tom Espiner, Contributor on

A project to develop chemical computers that are composed of neuron-like cells will begin on 1 February.

The project, which is being run by the University of Southampton, received €1.8m (£1.6m) of EU funding in December, according to researcher Klaus-Peter Zauner.

"Information processing can be done in a different way that doesn't use logic networks but uses chemical components as a substrate," Zauner told ZDNet UK on Tuesday.

The project will focus on researching self-assembling chemical computation systems.

The research team will form 'cells' using individual droplets of water in oil. These cell form spontaneously and can build the equivalent of a cell-wall made of lipids, said Zauner, referring to fat-like molecules that are soluble in oil, not water.

According to the project's proposal, when two artificial cells connect with each other, these lipid layers do not merge, but expel the oil between them, forming a natural cell membrane surface. The cells on either side can connect through hemolysin, a protein tunnel found in poison excreted by staphylococcus bacteria. Hemolysin inserts itself into lipid membranes and creates a 2nm water-filled channel between cells.

A state of computation can then be achieved through an oscillating chemical process known as a Belousov–Zhabotinsky reaction, Zauner said, which can communicate its state from cell to cell.

"The entire system self-assembles, and is excitable," Zauner added.

Being 'excitable' — a condition where the state of a system can change after a threshold is reached in one of its inputs — is a characteristic the project's cells will share with neurons, Zauner said.

Outcomes of the research are likely to be controllers for sub-cubic-millimetre robots, and information processors for intelligent drugs that process chemical signals, Zauner added.

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