Bacteria Beats Sudoku; NY Times Crossword Beware

How are you at Sudoku? If you’re anything like me, there are a few strains of Japanese taught Escherichia coli bacteria that are probably better at it than you, according to a New Scientist report.

A team of scientists from the University of Tokyo which competed in the International Genetically Engineered Machine competition created the problem-solving bacteria. It consisted of a group of 16 types of E. coli that were genetically identified by their placement on a four by four grid. In place of numbers the team used 4 colors to represent values, and each strain of bacteria was able to express one of the four. A few squares were given color at the start to simulate typical sudoku play.

The bacteria can be "programmed" through gene manipulation--in this case the bacteria would only accept RNA from cells in the same row, column or block, and also be forbidden from changing into the same color as a transmitting bacteria. This made it possible to solve the sudoku puzzle using a process of elimination as the bacteria broadcast information about themselves via RNA recombinases carried by viruses sent out by each type of E. coli.

All in all there’s not a lot of actual figuring out done by the bacteria, as the work is done initially by the team building the experiment and the bacteria themselves just behave along patterns established by the experiment itself. This type of parallel computing (in a sense) can have some serious application in the creation and use of biochemical computing devices.

In the experiment (and subsequent extrapolation--up to 81 types of bacteria in a full nine by nine grid) all of the cells are filled in at the same time by the bacteria, something impossible for us as human beings. If this can lead to computation by genetically engineered organisms not entirely based on a prescribed path as in Sudoku, we won’t need giant server rooms and mainframes. We’ll be able to grow computers in a lab specifically tailored to a task.

Bacteria based computers. Maybe we’ll finally get rid of those beige computer cases after all.

[University of Tokyo via New Scientist / Photo: Tim Psych on Flickr; used under Creative Commons]

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