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Here’s how maths can make them more valuable

Humans have made use of the power of microbes for a long time, such as using yeast to create bread as well as yogurt, beer, and wine by fermentation. Living organisms are beneficial to us as they can perform chemical reactions in their daily lives.

Glycolate-excreting bacteria from thermal hot springs in Yellowstone. Microbe Wiki

Today, we are able to use microbes to make a wide range of chemical compounds, including biofuels (including methane and ethanol), as well as medical products (such in the form of antibiotics). Additionally, we can make use of microorganisms to purify the water we use by removing organic matter.

In the last two decades, scientists have been studying how humans can benefit from advanced biological systems that don’t exist in the natural world. For example, bacteria can be genetically altered to function like “bio-sensors” and emit light upon exposure to specific substances like oil or pathogens.

We are also able to engineer species that can work with other microbes. This could lead to completely novel biological systems that have enhanced capabilities. In the last ten years, the usage of colonies of microbes (or co-populations) has been more prevalent. Through the association of diverse bioengineered microbes with each other, the new community is able to perform different tasks. It may even surpass the ones that the same species can accomplish.

For instance, in the event that one species produces Acetate (which is poisonous) in the course of consuming glucose in order to complete a job (such as the production of a beneficial substance), another species designed “to eat” the Acetate could be introduced to cleanse our environment.

The control of microbes using math

These efforts have attracted the attention of not only biologists but also computer and systems theorists and mathematicians as well.

Modern numerical techniques allow us to analyze and predict the behavior of biological systems. There are a myriad of mathematical tools that permit us, for example, to analyze the behavior of methods described in an equation, which includes their stability and the response to external influence. Through this process, we can impose certain behaviors on microbes and thus optimize the process of biological evolution.

Bacteria, for example, like glucose. The more glucose they have in their surroundings, the bigger they get. Thus, scientists are able to develop algorithms that adjust sugar levels used to modify the concentration or behavior of the bacteria in accordance with the needs of biologists. Additionally, microbes can be stimulated with light or chemical compounds that are specific to them.

Two digesters are located at the Back River Wastewater Treatment Plant close to Baltimore, Maryland. Anything solid or organic ultimately gets thrown into these, and microbes absorb it and then transform it into methane. Kristian BjornardCC BY-SA

They are not as straightforward as they appear. Biosystems are fundamentally unpredictable. Many variables can affect the behavior of these systems, and they’re not readily identifiable.

The mathematical models that regulate biological systems could be insufficient or not accurately depict the behavior or interactions between cells and their environment. To deal with these challenges, the algorithms need to be able to withstand the test of time: they must be able to function even when reality is in a small amount in comparison to the models.

The complexity is increased when managing an entire community that includes different types of microbes. For instance, they could fight for the food available, which could result in the extermination of one microbe species.

Control algorithms designed to manage a co-population have to be aware of the connection between two species and take actions that will guarantee their existence and, in turn, assist bioengineers in their work.

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Jane S. King

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