The Loom

Blogs are abuzz with the news that E. coli can solve classic math puzzles like the Burnt Pancake Puzzle. The paper itself is available for free here.

Judging from the Frankensteinian anxiety this news seems to be triggering, people must think that life is normally not capable of the logic that we’re familiar with in computers. In fact, however, E. coli was carrying out a natural sort of computation long before some undergrads starting tinkering with it. In Microcosm, I show how the genes that build E. coli’s flagella act like a noise filter circuit. (Here’s a new paper on the digital control in E. coli.) What’s interesting about the Burnt-Pancake E. coli is that it’s solving our problems, not its own.


  1. #1 jianying
    May 21, 2008

    Bill Gates’s paper he wrote way back before he dropped out of college is on this exact topic. That paper address the computational bounds on solving the problem for a stack of N burnt pancakes. He wrote the paper with Prof. Papadimitriou, who is currently at Berkeley. Consequently Bill gates have a Erdos number of 4.

  2. #2 Stephen
    May 21, 2008

    Biology doing computation… it doesn’t always come up with ‘what is six times nine’. (DNA would have loved this story.)

  3. #3 Doug
    May 23, 2008

    Hi Carl,

    I enjoyed your ‘What Is a Species?’ in June 2008 Scientific American.

    What do you think of Jeff Hecht, ‘The Neanderthal correlation’, “A quetion of breeding” in Nature v543 n7149 p562 22 May 2008?

  4. #4 Steven
    May 25, 2008

    Very cool.