Proving the Business Case for the Internet of Things

A Bio-IoT could transform cities, industry

William Payne
December 24, 2019

Could the Internet of Things be transformed by bio-electronics? Two researchers at Queen Mary University of London in the UK believe that cellular organisms could be harnassed to provide a huge leap forward in IoT capabilities across the board, including in smart cities, industrial applications, critical infrastructure and medicine.

According to the two researchers, Raphael Kim and Stefan Poslad, bacteria could replace the myriad of devices and sensors currently in use in the Internet of Things, providing the same functions and logic for a fraction of the energy and space.

Far from being far-fetched science fiction, the technology to use bacteria such as Escherichia coli (E.coli) to replace electronic sensors and logic devices is rapidly gaining ground.

Bacteria have a number of advantages: they are mobile, able to travel in any direction; they have receptors in their cell walls able to detect light, temperature, chemicals, and movement; they store information extremely efficiently -- in DNA -- and they can communicate and comprehend information.

They are also tiny, able to get into spaces that man-made technologies cannot. They propagate at enormous speeds, and are extremely energy-efficient.

Turning a bacteria such as E.coli into an IoT device may seem an unsurpassable challenge. However, in 2018 University of Padua researcher Federico Tavella built a bio-electronics circuit in which a strain of immobile E.coli transmitted a simple "Hello World" message to a mobile strain, which then carried and passed on the message to another location.

According to Kim and Poslad, the University of Padua experiment shows how bacteria can be corralled to create simple circuits, that in turn can form part of far more complex circuits. 

E.coli can be manipulated and reprogrammed with increasingly greater ease. Genetic engineering kits such as those produced by MIT Media Labs' spin-out The Amino Lab, are now available for schoolchildren, allowing them to genetically reprogram E.coli to perform different functions, including giving them the ability to glow in the dark.

Kim and Poslad argue that a bacteria-based Internet of Things could have particular use in industrial, infrastructure and smart city applications, where they could be trained to search out toxins and pollutants, gather data, and take action autonomously.

Beyond the sheer technical challenge of corralling billions of E.coli bacteria to perform complex tasks, there is also the issue that bacteria may be just a bit too autonomous.

If autonomous cars and AI look like posing challenges for humans, that could be dwarfed by autonomous, reprogrammed bacteria.

Containing and managing a bacteria-based IoT may be next to impossible. Bacteria such as E.coli can not only proliferate at an alarming rate, they can also transmit their data, and their genetic code, to other organisms. Bacteria can transfer their genetic material to yeast, to plants and to mammalian cells.

In some applications and settings, a bacteria-based IoT may be perfectly safe and manageable. In others, it might -- at present -- represent a unwarranted risk, until we develop technology that can manage such bacteria safely in the wild, or render them harmless.