Computer Simulates Single-Celled Organism For First Time

Scientists with Stanford University and the J. Craig Venter Institute have developed a way for a computer to simulate an entire organism, a fairly humble single-cell bacterium that lives in the human genital and respiratory tracts, called Mycoplasma genitalium.

While Live Science reports that the microbe’s unfortunate job is to cause sexually transmitted disease, it now can have a much nicer (and much cooler) claim to fame. Lead researcher Markus Covert has stated that this accomplishment will open the door for scientists to create more complicated virtual organisms and eventually help bioengineers use computers to design organisms. Covert stated:

“The answer is simply cancer is not a one-gene phenomenon, it’s thousands of genes interacting together, and other factors interacting in complicated ways. The fact is, we won’t be able to understand how those things interact together unless we use a rational, computer-based approach.”

The New York Times reports that the simulation of the organism is of its complete life cycle and includes all 525 of its genes. The scientists are calling it a “first draft.” Covert stated:

“Where I think our work is different is that we explicitly include all of the genes and every known gene function. There’s no one else out there who has been able to include more than a handful of functions or more than, say, one-third of the genes.”

The simulation of the Mycoplasma genitalium bacteria runs on a cluster of 128 computers, and shows the interactions of 28 categories of molecules, including DNA, RNA, proteins, and small molecules called metabolites that are generated by cell processes.

Newser notes that, during their research, the scientists stumbled on another fact–running the simulation for dividing a single cell takes half a gigabyte of data. Covert stated:

“I find this fact completely fascinating, because I don’t know that anyone has ever asked how much data a living thing truly holds.”

When asked about computerizing a bigger organism, such as E. coli or an entire human cell, Covert stated, “I’ll have the answer in a couple of years.”