Scientists in Europe recently passed a kind of microscopic version of the Turing Test by creating artificial cells so lifelike that natural cells can't tell the difference during a chemical "conversation."
The Turing test, devised in 1950 by the mathematician Alan Turing, is designed to tell humanity when and whether we've created true artificial intelligence. Radically simplified, it works like this: If a computer can fool a human into thinking the computer is itself human, then we've arrived at true A.I.
Here, the artificial cells fooled real ones into behaving as if they were alive.
The breakthrough could potentially develop into entirely new ways to treat diseases and, especially, microbial infections. By getting artificial cells to communicate with organic cells, doctors could directly influence the behavior of bacteria within the body.
The research team, led by Sheref S. Mansy of Italy's University of Trento, developed their non-living cells in the lab, then placed them near living bacteria from three different species - Vibrio fischeri, Pseudomonas aeruginosa and the old laboratory standby E. coli.
When adjacent to the living bacteria, DNA within the artificial cells began producing particular proteins, triggered by the bacteria. Because cells essentially communicate through these kinds of chemical exchanges, this development was in itself significant. It suggests that the synthetic cells were "listening" to the bacteria.
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Researchers then reversed the scenario, giving the artificial cells the ability to talk back. This began a process of two-way communication between the bacteria and the artificial cells.
In a Q&A exchange over at ResearchGate, Mansy summed up the findings:
"It is absolutely possible to make artificial cells that can chemically communicate with bacteria," he said. "Artificial cells can sense the molecules that are naturally secreted from bacteria and in response synthesize and release chemical signals back."
This new kind of cellular diplomacy could lead to treatments in which artificial cells and natural cells work together. The synthetic cells could also be used to translate chemical signals between other organic systems.
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"Such artificial cells do a reasonably good job of mimicking natural cellular life and can be engineered to mediate communication paths between organisms that do not naturally speak with each other," Mansy said.
It gets a little complicated past that. But the upshot is that artificial cells could potentially disrupt the cellular processes that lead to bacterial infections, which in turn cause many fatal diseases.
In the end, though, everything depends on the natural cells accepting the synthetic cells as one of their own. That's where Turing comes in. By tracking the chemical exchanges, the researchers have demonstrated that artificial cells can indeed pass a basic laboratory Turing Test.
The research was published in the latest edition of journal "ACS Central Science."
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