BiFi is to biology as WiFi is to computers. It's a technology being pioneered by researchers at Stanford University and other institutions, looking at bioengineering techniques for creating complex biological communities working together to accomplish specific tasks. In a sense every organ and every system of coordinated activity within our bodies runs as a BiFi network. And what researchers are trying to accomplish involves duplicating this same feat.
Back in September 2012, the team at Stanford reported the results of their work in the Journal of Biological Engineering. Using a bacteria the researchers engineered cell-to-cell communication sending genetic messages back and forth.
In the body cells communicate using proteins which are encoded with specific instructions by the cell's DNA. They deliver the instructions to neighbouring cells when they leave through the cell membrane and cross the inter-cellular space to enter other cells. What the researchers at Stanford were able to accomplish was message transmission without relying on proteins. The advantage, a protein has limited message capacity. It can deliver a single instruction. But with the work done at Stanford, cells can transmit much more data and do it over longer distances. In one experiment DNA messages were transmitted a distance of 7 centimeters ( 2.75 inches). For cells that's the equivalent of us making a long distance call from New York City to Buffalo.
For biological engineering and biosynthesis communicating messages to a large community of cells could mean significant technological innovation in all kinds of fields from computing to agriculture, chemistry, energy, pharmacology, manufacturing processes, and environmental remediation.
In the diagram seen below, (a) represents the WiFi world of computing, and (b) shows its equivalent in BiFi. As you can see there is little difference between the two.
So what are some of the applications for BiFi?
- Creating bio-reactors containing algae that respond to the presence of CO2 or other pollutants and sequester them from the atmosphere. The end result is biofuel.
- Improving nitrogen fixation by plant-to-nitrogen-fixing bacteria communication to optimize plant development and crop yields without chemical fertilizers.
- Improving water quality using communities of bacteria that sense the chemicals in pollutants and extract them to produce water for drinking and agricultural use.
- Creating communities of cells to replace failed body organs or to act as testing environments for studying new drugs and their effectiveness.
- Creating biological computers like the bio-neural gel packs (see image below) that formed the organic circuitry in computer systems on board Star Trek Voyager. The one shown here was used for the transporter deck.
- Creating artificial life forms.
It's these last two applications that are the ones we most associate with BiFi. And in a sense we are BiFi ourselves, sophisticated, biology based computers. How we differ from electronic computing devices is in the vast amount of data communicated within us that we interpret and process on a massive parallel scale. Our bodies may not possess faster processors than the ones Intel builds, but we efficiently allocate the communication of messages and tasks to diverse communities of cells (our organs and systems), each performing subset tasks, and producing results that are blindingly fast.
The researchers at Stanford are on to something that may yield a DNA computer in the not too distant future, or an artificial life form engineered from communicating bacterial cell communities.
Essays and comments posted in World Future Society and THE FUTURIST magazine blog portion of this site are the intellectual property of the authors, who retain full responsibility for and rights to their content. For permission to publish, distribute copies, use excerpts, etc., please contact the author. The opinions expressed are those of the author. The World Future Society takes no stand on what the future will or should be like.
KEEP UP WITH WFS NEWS & UPCOMING EVENTS
October 5, 2015 - All the boxes have been unpacked. All the cupboards are stuffed to the gills. Finally I can begin to get back to what I like doing, writing about science, technology and the future.
October 2, 2015 - This last week has proven to be tougher than both my wife and I thought. Moving at our age leads to lots of aches and pains. There is only so much that these old bones and muscles can endure before they protest seeking acetaminophen or something stronger to stop the ache.
Money is the primary mechanism for storing and exchanging value, especially in our daily purchases, and it’s heading rapidly into a faster, smarter and more mobile future. Nevertheless, the constant in the midst of change will remain levels of human trust in the proliferating forms of money.
September 23, 2015 - In 2015 437 companies so far have factored carbon emissions in their financial planning.
September 22, 2015 - There are no geopolitical boundaries when it comes to the atmosphere. The molecules of air I exhale right now at some point may find their way to China and back again.
September 21, 2015 - One of the most interesting 21st century phenomenon is the rise of an entirely new type of business built on the infrastructure of the Internet and designed not just to make money but to provide a public benefit as well. In the past public benefit was something delivered by government. Think libraries and hospitals.
September 20, 2015 - Star Trek IV The Voyage Home featured humpback whales and a scene in which Scotty and Dr. McCoy offered a company in San Francisco the secret to transparent aluminum, a material not yet invented at the time. Dr. McCoy questioned whether the disclosure would alter the future.
September 18, 2015 - If the entire Antarctic continent were to melt it would add 58 meters (190 feet) to world sea levels. The real question is how much additional carbon in the atmosphere would be needed for this scenario to play out?