Home » Genetically Modified E. coli Bacteria Play Tic-Tac-Toe Better Than Unskilled Humans, Shows A Spanish Study

Genetically Modified E. coli Bacteria Play Tic-Tac-Toe Better Than Unskilled Humans, Shows A Spanish Study

by Coffee Table Science

Researchers at the Spanish National Research Council (SNRC) in Madrid have announced that they had genetically modified a strain of Escherichia coli (E. coli) bacteria and taught it how to play the game of tic-tac-toe.

Image Credits: Pixabay

The research was started in 2019 when another research group genetically engineered a strain of E. coli bacteria that could sense 12 different chemicals and responded by changing the activity of specific genes.

But, the research team at SNRC took this work and applied other modifications. They combined several copies of two circular pieces of DNA called plasmids. Each plasmid encodes a separate fluorescent protein. One is green, and the other is red. The ratio of these two plasmids was constant in bacteria, and hence, their final colour is not predetermined, though it can be affected by different chemicals and antibiotics. Also, the ratio remains constant when no modification is done. Thus, the composition of DNA remains unchanged and stores the existing information in itself until the next modification. The ratio and colour change when new data is introduced using chemicals and antibiotics, but this is with respect to the previous chemical composition in the plasmid or DNA. This shows that there is some memory retained, and the learning process is possible.

Bacteria Behaving As Memristors
Researchers observed that after genetically modifying the strain of E. coli bacteria, they behave as memristors. A memristor is an electric component that processes and stores data in its internal memory. It is used to create computer chips that imitate the functioning of the synapses (a neural junction at which electric nerve impulse passes from one neuron to another) in the brain. They named these memristors like behaviour of bacteria as ‘memregulons’.
The component creates a neural network, a form of artificial intelligence. This network receives incoming information and training data and transmits outgoing information.
As genetic modification allowed the E. coli bacteria to take input (antibiotics and chemicals) and transmit the result (DNA modification) while storing the previous data in memory, scientists decided to form a neural network with them.

“This approach could have all kinds of applications, from creating living materials capable of learning to making “smart” microbiomes,” said Alfonso Jaramillo at the Spanish National Research Council.

Bacteria Playing Noughts and Crosses (Tic-Tac-Toe)
For the sake of simplicity, the research team assumed that a human player always starts the game by putting a cross in the centre square. Hence, the first bacterial nought is in the square corresponding to the well with the reddest colour.

Then he plays next, and the bacteria shows its next move. The bacteria are being told of the move by one of the chemicals they can sense being added to each well. Each chemical corresponds to one square. The next move is indicated by the change in protein ratio in each well. The game continued for several days as bacteria required time for responding.

“In the beginning, the bacteria play randomly,” said Jaramillo. “After only eight training games, the bacteria became expert tic-tac-toe players.”

According to Jaramillo, the next step is to create a more complex neural network using the bacteria with the hope that it will be able to complete more complicated tasks.

“Changed gene circuits could give living cells the ability to make complex decisions,” said scientists.

The detailed study has been published in the journal New Scientist.

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