One unexpected thing that the computer has done is given us some insight into how life forms that are utterly different from ourselves manage to do things. For example, there is an analogy between the way ants think and computer programming. That helps us understand how an anthill can be organized in a very complex way without any individual ant ever seeing the big picture — or needing to.
In the same way, a single-celled organism uses an “internal ‘computer’” to walk without needing a brain:
Most animals require brains to run, jump or hop. The single-celled protozoan Euplotes eurystomus, however, achieves a scurrying walk using a simple, mechanical computer to coordinate its microscopic legs, UC San Francisco researchers reported on September 22, 2022, in the journal Current Biology.
Euplotes has 14 leg-like appendages, each one composed of bundles of hair-like cilia. The researchers showed for the first time that internal connections between these cilia control their motions, letting the legs move only in certain patterns and sequences. When these internal connections are disrupted, the movements of the aquatic organisms become less productive—often leading the cells to turn in circles rather than walk in a line.Sarah C.P. Williams, University of California, San Francisco, “Single-celled organism uses internal ‘computer’ to walk” at Phys.org (October 11, 2022) The paper is open access.
The cells didn’t walk like people, with legs clearly alternating, nor did they have a cadence like a galloping horse. But [Ben] Larson and [Wallace] Marshall found that the appendages did follow certain patterns. The researchers characterized 32 different “gait states,” or combinations of leg movements, and then showed that certain gait states were more likely to follow others.
“There seemed to be this sequential logic happening with the movements,” said Larson. “They weren’t random, and we began to suspect there was some sort of information processing happening.”Sarah C.P. Williams, University of California, San Francisco, “Single-celled organism uses internal ‘computer’ to walk” at Phys.org (October 11, 2022)
Not only that, when the researchers damaged the microtubules with a drug or a needle, Euplotes’ movements “became more random and haphazard.”
The researchers teamed up with computer scientists to model how the filaments could be controlling the walking motion. Together, they concluded that tension and strain on the filaments could dictate which gait states were possible at any given moment. The machinery, they said, resembles a Strandbeest—a moving, kinetic sculpture designed by a Dutch artist to walk and react to its environment.
Although this kind of internal machinery doesn’t resemble today’s digital devices, it does follow principles used by early mechanical computers, Marshall said.Sarah C.P. Williams, University of California, San Francisco, “Single-celled organism uses internal ‘computer’ to walk” at Phys.org (October 11, 2022)
The researchers suspect that other single-celled life forms also use something roughly like early computing methods as an alternative to a brain. As a development, it makes sense. The organism can do more complex things for its own benefit than would otherwise be possible in a single cell format. What some of them can do and how they do it may surprise us down the road.
You may also wish to read: The intelligence birds and bees naturally have — and we don’t. An exploration of the stunning findings in Eric Cassell’s new book, “Animal Algorithms.” Cassell observes that it would take deep thought and sophisticated design techniques to build a robot to accomplish what the bees, ants and termites can do.