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Trento
26 Gennaio 2017

The Turing test applied to cells

A research team led by CIBIO in Trento has created artificial cells capable of communicating with natural cells. The study appeared in ACS Central Science

The Turing test evaluates a machine’s ability to mimic human behaviour, to determine whether a machine can think like a human being. To pass the test, devised by the mathematician Alan Turing in the 50s, a computer must be able to trick the examiner into thinking that it is indeed human, usually through a set of questions and answers. 
But what if we gave the Turing test to a cell? Single-celled organisms can’t obviously communicate with words. That’s why a team of researchers led by Sheref Mansy of CIBIO at the University of Trento used artificial cells to demonstrate that these micro-organisms built in the lab can actually pass a basic Turing test  by interacting and chemically “talking” with living bacterial cells.  
Mansy and colleagues proposed that artificial life forms can develop the ability to communicate with natural cells, and that we can assess this ability using the same test we use to evaluate a computer’s artificial intelligence. 
To demonstrate this concept, the researchers constructed nanoscale lipids capable of “listening” to chemical signals emitted by bacteria. These artificial cells showed that they can “hear” the natural cells by turning on a gene that made them fluoresce. They could communicate with different bacterial species, including V. fischeri, E. coli and P. aeruginosa. 
The study, recently published in ACS Central Science, was funded by the Simons Foundation, the Armenise-Harvard Foundation, the National Science Foundation and the Autonomous Province of Trento. 
Sheref Mansy, research leader, moved to Trento in 2009 after receiving the Career Development Award from the Armenise-Harvard Foundation, and opened the Origins of Life and Synthetic Biology Lab at CIBIO. The purpose of the laboratory is to find a middle ground between living and non-living systems at cellular level: in particular, we need to build cells that can “breathe” artificially. This approach can have a significant impact on the advancement of cellular therapies, through the creation of artificial cells capable of “deceiving” bacteria.