Non-technical abstract: The goal of this project is to develop new ways of connecting electronics, biology, and information using living communities of bacteria. The majority of microbes on earth do not live as solitary cells. Instead, they form remarkably complex communities which are able to thrive in nearly every environment from the bottom of the ocean to the human gut. If we can integrate communities of bacteria with microelectronics, perhaps we could combine the impressive energy efficiency, environmental resilience, and multifunctional chemical sensing of bacterial biofilms, with the flexibility and programmability of modern semiconductors. The project engages the broader community by offering interdisciplinary courses on bioelectronics and computing, providing research opportunities for high school students and undergraduates, and organizing workshops that bring together researchers and industry representatives from different disciplines to investigate frontiers at the intersection of electronics, computing, and biology. These research goals and educational opportunities are relevant to many areas in the modern workforce, including computing, biotechnology, and synthetic biology.

Technical Abstract

This project explores hybrid information systems using bacterial biofilms integrated with semiconductor technology. Microbial biofilms are highly complex systems with emergent order, which can survive in widely varying environments. It was recently observed that Bacillus subtilis cells in biofilms can use ion channels to propagate electrical potential waves among populations of thousands of individual bacteria. Thanks to signal regeneration by downstream cells, these electrical signaling modes have the potential to travel farther than by diffusion alone, and they offer a unique opportunity for new modes of interfacing electronics and biology. The first goal of the project is to design a hardware platform which incorporates living biofilms on active custom semiconductor chips, which can both sense and actuate signaling within the biofilms. The second goal is to study the underlying mechanisms of electrical signaling and oscillations within single biofilms, as well as signaling between multiple nearby biofilms. The third goal is to utilize the electrical properties of the biofilm to encode abstract information written using addressable electrical stimulation, and to perform hybrid computations using programmable networks of coupled biofilm oscillators. These research activities are integrated with opportunities for cross-disciplinary educational programs involving both underserved Rhode Island students and the broader scientific community.

This SemiSynBio-II program (NSF 20-518) grant supports research to explores hybrid information systems using bacterial biofilms integrated with semiconductor technology with funding from the Division of Materials Research (DMR) of the Mathematical and Physical Sciences Directorate (MPS), the Division of Molecular and Cellular Biosciences (MCB) of the Biological Sciences Directorate (BIO),the Division of Computing and Communication Foundations (CCF) of the Computer and Information Science and Engineering Directorate (CISE), and the Division of Electrical, Communications and Cyber Systems (ECCS) of the Engineering Directorate (ENG).

This award reflects NSF's statutory mission and has been deemed worthy of support through evaluation using the Foundation's intellectual merit and broader impacts review criteria.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Materials Research (DMR)
Standard Grant (Standard)
Application #
Program Officer
Z. Ying
Project Start
Project End
Budget Start
Budget End
Support Year
Fiscal Year
Total Cost
Indirect Cost
Brown University
United States
Zip Code