It’s Alive! Artificial-Life Worm Wiggles on Its Own

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A worm wiggles.

It’s a process as old as time, but there’s a twist: This worm is a bit of open-source software that encodes biological data gleaned from decades of scientific study into the nematode C. elegans. The parameters are programmed, but the worm acted on its own.

Why a worm? Well, the widely studied nematode was the first multicellular organism to have its entire genome mapped. With just 1,031 cells and 302 neurons, the 1 millimeter-long transparent worm is a manageable animal to recreate as a software-based artificial life form.

The simple life form nevertheless moves, mates, eats and even socializes, and replicating it using computer code may yield some biological insights into the biological bases for those behaviors.

The project built from the bottom up, translating data on cells, DNA, neural structures and so on into computer code, in the hopes of driving a simulation that would display the same behaviors as a naturally occurring worm. If the simulation goes wrong, finding the fix can lead to more conventional biological science.

“We’ve started from a cellular approach so we are building behavior of individual cells and we are trying to get the cells to perform those behaviors. We are starting with simple crawling. The main point is that we want the worm’s overall behavior to emerge from the behavior of each of its cells put together,” the worm’s makers, called the OpenWorm project, say on their website.

The project recently managed to get the digital worm to swim very much like a real nematode would.

The software nematode above is perhaps the first multicellular artificial life form to be fully simulated (though so far only movement has been executed), but software has been used since the early 1990s to establish systems that evolve on their own according to set parameters.

Early on, artificial life creators saw that the technique could be used to model evolution in order to obtain more data faster than nature’s epically (epochally?) slow processes can provide. Evolution remains the focus of much work in a-life, as it’s called.

Simulating processes, like evolution, can be a more rigorous scientific process than simulating an organism because the results are more definitive, Arend Hintze, a developmental biologist and geneticist at Michigan State University, told Singularity Hub.

"Doing computational research is rather hard: What you find doesn’t necessarily translate into the real world. When you get a simulation going, then technically you have the black box organism and another black box virtual organism: Just because they look the same doesn’t mean they are the same," he said.

The a-life field is trying "to get away from stuff [like OpenWorm] that’s cool and looks great and invokes powerful emotion in us to stuff that’s really hardcore science," Hintze said.

But he had to admit the that artificial worm is indeed cool and represents a major achievement.

Cameron Scott

Cameron received degrees in Comparative Literature from Princeton and Cornell universities. He has worked at Mother Jones, SFGate and IDG News Service and been published in California Lawyer and SF Weekly. He lives, predictably, in SF.

Discussion — 13 Responses

  • trisn January 9, 2014 on 4:52 pm

    Poor little worm, doesn’t even know it’s only a computer program that’ll get switched off on a whim – just like us really.

  • John Moore January 9, 2014 on 5:27 pm

    Let’s be clear – this is a digital model of a nematode and not a physical nematode. The headline and first few paragraphs could be confusing. This digital model of life is still very impressive, of course, but the John Searle fans will always ask, “Can it have causal powers in the real world?”

  • Jamie Narushchen January 10, 2014 on 3:40 pm

    How do you know it doesn’t just mimic life? Conscious awareness is different from material form. This study “ begs “( Logic) the question. By stating it’s “alive “doesn’t mean it is .

    • Greendogo Jamie Narushchen January 11, 2014 on 3:18 am

      Why do you think there is a distinction necessary? Material form gives way to conscious awareness.

    • Greendogo Jamie Narushchen January 11, 2014 on 3:20 am

      Or are you saying that, because an artificially simulated lifeform’s “material form” is simulated, it wouldn’t be possible for it to have “conscious awareness”? That get’s into the problem of how one tests for “conscious awareness”.

    • why06 Jamie Narushchen January 11, 2014 on 6:48 am

      I for one don’t believe any worm is conscious, digital or otherwise.

  • bobmxmcgrath January 11, 2014 on 2:25 am

    Misleading title and associated picture guys. I expect better

  • mariusz January 11, 2014 on 11:07 am

    “In the midst of exciting press coverage saying complimentary things about OpenWorm, we are seeing an ever-improving description of our achievements to date. As one member of the community said recently, “if we wait a week, they’ll be saying we have an artificial worm that can beat humans at chess!”

  • eightsaces January 13, 2014 on 7:55 am

    These type of stories never tell what kind of computer(s) are being used.To me that is one of the most important parts of the story.

    • mariusz eightsaces January 15, 2014 on 5:29 am

      it was a 64 core Opteron, running Linux.. And it took 3 days to generate this little video.

  • Sergio Pissanetzky January 13, 2014 on 8:18 am

    I think the point they are trying to make is that the software was not explicitly programmed to wiggle. It was programmed to simulate biology, but it has decided to wiggle on its own. The problem I have is that it wiggles but seems to stay at the same place. The behavior of an adaptive animal should emerge in response to the environment, for example to a gradient of temperature or concentration, not just its cells alone. What am I missing?

  • Mireia Bosch Estrany January 21, 2014 on 3:04 am

    So, is the origin of life just a bit of information, pushing a run button? Otherwise, just the consummation of a peculiar electromagnetic bond, the last step in a logical and finite recipe? Equally, is a cell or a body just an organic machine, a set made of pieces? If it is, can machines be born and die? What is to be born or die apart from acquiring or losing certain qualitative configuration? But, is there a qualitative leap detached from raw matter-energy transformations, a sort of magical doorway that living beings go through two times? Therefore, is there a beginning or it would be as finding a cut in the material history of the universe, an infinite void that human language patches now for convenience? In the same way, is there death? If not, what are we without beginning and ending? What is life apart from knowledge and its technology? Along these lines, there is a peculiar book, a short preview in Just another suggestion in order to freethink for a while.