During the 19th century, the industrial revolution automated mass production in factories and a vast physical transportation infrastructure. In the latter part of the 20th century and the start of current century, the information technological revolution automated personal information processing in computers and the Internet. We believe the next major technological revolution will be based on an integration of information processing and material production. Living organisms combine these processes seamlessly and biological organisms are still the only machines that can do this. To find out how they do this is in part why we seek to understand life.
What is ChemBio-ICT?
It is a new research direction that seeks to integrate the power of information processing and control as we know it from Information and Communication Technology (ICT) devices (micro-electro-mechanical systems or MEMS), with the material production flexibility and efficiency as we know it from biochemical systems and aggregates.
State of the art
The state-of-the-art of lab-on-a-chip technology (Tangen et al., 2005) is programmable microfluidics which adds the functionalities of computer-controlled flows and movements of individual macromolecular aggregates (via programmable electrodes and actuators) and real-time monitoring (via processed read-outs from within the system). Microflows and bio-chemical reactions can now be not only controlled and programmed, e.g., in/out of a chemical microreactor, but also feed-back adjusted, based on e.g. fluorescent intensity of chosen reactants. The platform enables a completely new paradigm of chemical processing, and is appropriately termed microfluidic computers (Goranovic et al., 2006), or chemical Turing machines, likely to become the future lab-robot technicians in biochemical sciences (Muggleton 2006). The highly spatially resolved microfluidic networks or matrices integrated with feed-back programmable flow-control units present then a remarkable experimental platform in stark contrast to the ordinary epruvette/beaker/tube systems. In particular, evolution of bio-molecular interactions involving various nucleic-acid molecules, lipids, droplets, etc., can be monitored and/or programmed in sequential and parallel ways not previously possible.
Beyond the state of the art
These possibilities open avenues for realizing both natural and artificial addressing and construction of controllable micro-containers as well as metabolic-information reaction pathways within addressable microfluidic-based structures. Moreover, it enables a MEMS based life-support of entirely new chemically living systems, e.g. protocells (Rasmussen et al., 2003). These ChemBio-ICT platforms also enable the implementation of hybrid life-forms, where part of the living processes are implemented in the biochemical materials, while other parts of the living processes are implemented in the MEMS hardware (McCaskill, 2009). Implementation of such systems are currently under way in the context of the ECCell project (Electronic Chemical Cell).
Recently, we discovered that this ChemBio-ICT platform can also support a programmable information and production chemistry by introducing an addressable chemical container (chemtainer) production system and interfacing it with electronic computers via MEMS technology with regulatory feedback loops. As in a modern biological subcellular matrix, the chemical containers at the micro- and nanoscales are self-assembling, self-repairing and replicating (MATCHIT team, 2009). Our MATrix for CHemical IT (MATCHIT) is modeled after a biological subcellular matrix, where part of the processing occurs in the MEMS parts and where parts of the processing occurs in the biochemical part of the system. At this point only the biochemical part of the system can grow and evolve, while the MEMS hardware is fixed, although the control software can evolve.
Writing the European ChemBio-ICT Roadmap
We are currently charged with developing an European Roadmap for ChemBio-ICT activities. This is done in the context of the COBRA project (Coordination of Biological and Chemical IT Research Activities), which consists of a consortium composed of four ChemBio-ICT projects, including ECCell and MATCHIT.
G. Goranovic, S. Rasmussen, P. E. Nielsen, Artificial life forms in microfluidic computers, Proc. MicroTAS 2006, Tokyo, Japan, Nov 2006
MATCHIT team, 2009, see http://fp7-matchit.eu
J. McCaskill, Evolutionary microfluidic complementation toward artificial cells, in Protocells: Bridging nonliving and living matter, eds., Rasmussen et al., p 253-294, MIT Press 2009.
S. H. Muggleton, 2020 computing: Exceeding human limits, Nature 440 (2006) 409-410
S. Rasmussen, L. Chen, M. Nilsson, S. Abe, Bridging nonliving and living matter, Artificial Life 9 (2003) 269-316(a)
U. Tangen, P. F. Wagler, S. Chemnitz, G. Goranovic, T. Maeke, J. S. McCaskill, An electronically controlled microfluidic approach towards artificial cells, Proc. ECCS 05, Paris, Nov 2005