A far-flung team is trying to build the first digital lifeform to work out the basic principles of the brain.
For all the talk of artificial intelligence and all the games of SimCity that have been played, no one in the world can actually simulate living things. Biology is so complex that nowhere on Earth is there a comprehensive model of even a single simple bacterial cell.
And yet, these are exciting times for "executable biology," an emerging field dedicated to creating models of organisms that run on a computer. Last year,Markus Covert's Stanford lab created the best ever molecular model of a very simple cell. To do so, they had to compile information from 900 scientific publications. An editorial that accompanied the study in the journal Cell was titled, "The Dawn of Virtual Cell Biology."
In January of this year, the one-billion euro Human Brain Project received a decade's worth of backing from the European Union to simulate a human brain in a supercomputer. It joins Blue Brain, an eight-year-old collaboration between IBM and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, in this quest. In an optimistic moment in 2009, Blue Brain's director claimed such a model was possible by 2019. And last month, President Obama unveiled a $100 million BRAIN Initiative to give "scientists the tools they need to get a dynamic picture of the brain in action." An entire field, connectomics, has emerged to create wiring diagrams of the connections between neurons ("connectomes"), which is a necessary first step in building a realistic simulation of a nervous system. In short, brains are hot, especially efforts to model them in silico.
But in between the cell-on-silicon and the brain-on-silicon simulators lies a fascinating and strange new project to create a life-like simulation ofCaenohabditis elegans, a roundworm. OpenWorm isn't like these other initiatives; it's a scrappy, open-source project that began with a tweet and that's coordinated on Google Hangouts by scientists spread from San Diego to Russia. If it succeeds, it will have created a first in executable biology: a simulated animal using the principles of life to exist on a computer.