Start date: Feb 1, 2009,
End date: May 31, 2012
Ever since the insightful suggestion of John von Neumann, self-reproducing automata are considered to be a main long-term goal of IT. Biologists are dealing with such systems that arose in the course of evolution by natural selection. The future realization of technological artefacts that will mimic, or be inspired by biological automata, will face many problems that biological evolution had to solve. e-Flux will develop droplet-based digital microfluidic systems for the manipulation of reproducing artificial compartments and natural cells (including the analysis of adaptive pathways and molecular cooperation). The project combines cutting-edge technological development with high-level theoretical analysis of the experimentally realized systems. By the application of a large population of electronically controlled microdroplets we shall select for RNA replicator-based molecular networks that can learn from experience. The same method will be used to reconstruct a hypothetical interim stage of early biological evolution where protocells harboured a bag of competing catalytically active RNA genes. These achievements need technological development of our microfluidic machinery. As an example of unconventional biotechnology, we will put bacteria into the droplets, and select for various traits in a novel kind of 'evolution machine'. Theoretical analyses will complement the experimental work, especially in order to develop a better understanding of evolvability (the genetically controlled capacity to respond to directional selection) in artificial and natural molecular systems.
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