Giving A Whole New Meaning To “Computer Worm”

OpenWorm, an informal collaborative group of biologists and computer scientists from several countries, aims to create a complete digital model of a simple organism:

On May 19th this group managed to raise $121,076 on Kickstarter, a crowd-funding website. The money will be put towards the creation of the world’s most detailed virtual life form—an accurate, open-source, digital clone of a critter called Caenorhabditis elegans, a 1mm-long nematode that lives in the soils of the world’s temperate regions. … The idea, says Stephen Larson, a neuro- and computer scientist, who is the project’s co-ordinator, is to model the biochemical behaviour of every one of the worm’s cells, and how they interact with each other. If that can be done, then movement—and all the beast’s other behaviour patterns—should emerge by themselves from that mass of interactions.

George Dvorsky reviews the brief history of virtual organisms and why scientists are eager to create more of them:

To be fair, scientists have already created a computational model of an actual organism, namely the exceptionally small free-living bacteria known as Mycoplasma genitalia. It’s an amazing accomplishment, but the pathogen — with its 525 genes — is one of the world’s simplest organisms. Contrast that with E. coli, which has 4,288 genes, and humans, who have anywhere from 35,000 to 57,000 genes. Scientists have also created synthetic DNA that can self-replicate and an artificial chromosome from scratch. Breakthroughs like these suggest it won’t be much longer before we start creating synthetic animals for the real world. Such endeavors could result in designer organisms to help in the manufacturing of vaccines, medicines, sustainable fuels, and with toxic clean-ups.

There’s a very good chance that many of these organisms, including drugs, will be designed and tested in computers first. Eventually, our machines will be powerful enough and our understanding of biology deep enough to allow us to start simulating some of the most complex biological functions — from entire microbes right through to the human mind itself (what will be known as whole brain emulations).