When Laurie Heyer's students wanted to find a solution for a mathematical sorting problem, they decided to let a bunch of e. coli bacteria guess the answer. The bacteria that guessed wrong were killed.
That fairly Machiavellian approach is at the heart of the emerging field of bacterial computing - simply put, getting living cells to do the computational heavy lifting.
"Bacterial computing is massive parallel computation," says Ms. Heyer, an associate professor in the mathematics department at Davidson College in North Carolina. "You might have a billion computers in a millilitre of culture."
As with quantum computing, bacterial computing is still in its infancy. Much of the computational work involves coding a problem by altering the bacteria's DNA, and then letting the living cells try to "guess" a solution through trial and error. It may seem inefficient, but bacterial computing has a key advantage over traditional computing: bacteria can reproduce, and through the process, the computer can organically become more powerful.
But as Ms. Heyer points out, scientists are only now discovering how powerful bacterial computing can be. She estimates it'll be another decade or two before there are any commercial applications, but notes that reproduction isn't the only advantage of bacterial computing.
"They naturally mutate, so you get some noise and randomness in your computing," she says. "That sounds like a bad thing, but you can take advantage of that. You can get them to learn."