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New research center is dedicated to engineering cells into living machines

The Golden State will soon house its own “blue-sky” bioengineering center thanks to a healthy grant from the National Science Foundation. Based at the University of California, San Francisco, the $24 million Center for Cellular Construction will be used to study and promote cellular engineering, a young discipline that aims create living machines by manipulating nature.

To design these machines, researchers first have to comprehend the complexity of cells and uncover the mechanisms behind self-organization. Although cars, computers, and skyscrapers don’t assemble themselves, cells in fact do. If researchers can unlock the mechanisms behind self-assembly and modify them for specific functions, they may be able to develop sophisticated, living machines — ranging from environmentally responsive plants to intelligent medicines.

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“There are many potentially important outcomes of this research,” Simone Bianco, research staff member at IBM Research – Almaden, told Digital Trends. “If we understand how cells structure themselves in normal conditions, we can use this information to infer any abnormal state.”

Studies at the center will collect an unprecedented volume of biological data. “Making sense of this data is an enormous task,” Bianco said. To aid in the effort, Bianco and his team in the Cell State Interference Engine — one of the center’s five core programs — will employ Watson’s machine learning algorithms to scan and classify the features of hundreds of thousands of cellular images.

“This database, which will be continuously updated and augmented by concurring experimental results, will train our advanced machine learning algorithms,” he added. “By leveraging cognitive computing, we will be able to quantify the natural variability of biological data, and quantify the presence of anomalies.”

Other programs at the center will include the Cellular Machine Shop, Computer Aided Design, Multicellular Engineering, and Living Bioreactor. Each initiative is intended to further develop the field of cellular engineering as a collaborative effort.

“Biology as a 21st-century scientific discipline is becoming more and more interdisciplinary, and with a stronger and deeper connection to everybody’s life,” Bianco said. “This new NSF center represents, in my opinion, a paradigm of how progress is achieved: A collaborative, high level partnership between academia and research-based industry like IBM, to study challenging basic scientific problems and provide faster outlet to technology.”