Keith Comito

Biological games

Pac-Man of the microscopic world

The following is from the second issue of BioCoder, the quarterly newsletter for synthetic biologists, DIY biologists, neurobiologists, and more. Download your free copy today.

If you have ever played fetch with a dog or hide-and-seek with a particularly crafty cat, then you have played a biological game. In fact, humanity has a long and morally complex history of games and rituals involving other organisms, from the bull leapers of the Minoan civilization to the chariot races of ancient Rome. Now, through the application of biotechnology, such games are beginning to extend into the microscopic world, illuminating new opportunities for entertainment, education, and the understanding of ourselves as ethical and social creatures within the larger community of life.

It was about a year ago that I first heard the term “biotic games” during a workshop at Genspace exploring the research of Stanford’s Dr. Ingmar Riedel-Kruse, in which unicellular paramecium are manipulated via electric currents in order to play Atari-style games such as Pac-Man and Pong. Dr. Ellen Jorgensen and computer engineer Geva Patz demonstrated this behavioral response to electricity, known as galvanotaxis, by placing paramecia in an area bounded by four electrodes—as one of the electrodes became negatively charged, the paramecia swam in its direction, only to make a u-turn as this electrode became positive and another negative. This immediately sparked in my mind the wonders of the 1982 landmark film Tron (which, in turn, was inspired by Pong): beings in the machine, tiny organisms living out their own lives, yet contributing to a grander process.

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