Science, Tech

A Computer Worm

OpenWorm, an informal collaboration of researchers from America, Britain, Russia, and elsewhere, has successfully crowdfunded a science project on Kickstarter to create the “world’s most detailed virtual life-form”—an accurate digital clone of a critter called Caenorhabditis elegans, a tiny nematode that lives in the soils of the temperate regions.

C. elegans is a scientific stalwart. It is simple, transparent, easy to feed and easy to breed. As a result, it is one of the best-understood organisms in biology. Hermaphrodite individuals (which is most of them) have exactly 959 cells, of which 302 are neurons. The location and the function of every one of these cells is known.

Thanks to work begun in the 1970s, scientists even have a complete map—a “connectome”—of how the neurons link up with each other to form the worm’s nervous system. Despite 40 years of technological progress, C. elegans remains the only animal for which such a diagram is available.

Building a complete electronic organism in this way, one that aims to be functionally indistinguishable from its fleshy counterpart, would be quite an achievement.

It could be a good first step toward the building of a human brain from scratch.

For now, no one is quite clear what a faithful simulation would look like.


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