Large, three-dimensional cell colonies grown inexpensively using simple raw materials could be made into cheap, energy-efficient computers. A fundamental challenge in using living cells for computing is that computation by cells is error prone, and cells divide, die and reorganize inside a cell culture, making it difficult to maintain a defined architecture. This research will explore the design of yeast cell-based computing systems inspired by how computing is performed by the animal brain cells. To develop new knowledge at the intersection of electronics, computing and biology will require a new generation of students familiar with each of these areas who can work in collaborative teams. Building on work with organizations including the Freshman Research Initiative at UT Austin and Women in Science and Engineering at JHU, the PIs will develop programs to allow groups of undergraduate researchers to engage in long term research programs in which students have the opportunity to perform independent investigations as part of collaborative, inter-university teams.
This project will combine ideas from computer architecture and systems neuroscience with new tools from synthetic biology to develop yeastons - Saccharomyces cerevisiae cells that can collectively emulate a feedforward neural network through engineered cell-cell communication processes and programmable transcriptional logic. Crucially, yeaston networks will be designed to tolerate the inherent noisiness of single-cell biomolecular information processing and require no specific higher order spatial organization or patterning. The project members will build new protein receptors for small molecule signals and genetic logic systems that will enable single yeastons to emulate nodes in a feedforward neural network. The input-output behavior of single yeastons and yeaston networks will be quantitatively characterized, making it possible to evaluate the potential for scalable computation in yeaston systems. High-level models from neuroscience will be used to develop design principles for assembling robust yeaston networks and to derive scaling laws for yeaston computing.
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.