Fourteen-Legged Cell Carries Nature’s Tiny Computer

Computers are, after all, frighteningly complex state machines. Quite of bit of the software we write can be modeled as a state machine, too. A great technological achievement by humans? Turns out, state machines exist in some of nature’s tiniest natural computers, according to biologists studying Euplotes eurystomus, a kind of water-dwelling eukaryote. This single-cell organism uses fourteen protolegs known as cirri that move in a particular gait, in response to certain stimuli.

As you might expect, a single-celled organism doesn’t have the infrastructure to support a brain, so scientists wondered what could control the way the beast walks using the cirri. The answer was fibers made of bundles of microtubles that acted as a mechanical state machine.

While we are used to state machines using bi-stable electronic elements, older machines often used cams and microswitches along with a timing motor. For example, a phone answering machine might have a three-minute motor. One cam would depress a micro switch to run the outgoing message for 15 seconds. Then another cam would depress a microswitch to start recording, and a final switch and cam would keep the motor running until the very end. To start the process, a ringing phone would goose the motor so that that last cam engaged. Simple and no computer needed. The “brain fibers” of the Euplotes seem to work in a similar way. They enforce which states can be reached from what other states and react to outside stimuli, as well.

Is any of this practical? Maybe not, although we often see technology mimic biological systems. But we can’t help but wonder if future microscopic-scale machines might not need this same sort of mechanical state machine for many purposes, including locomotion.

You can apparently make single-cell organisms your servants, more or less. We’ve covered state machines many times if you need a refresher.

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