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Communications of the ACM


In Pursuit of Virtual Life

digital reconstruction of neocortical microcircuitry

Digital reconstruction of neocortical microcircuitry.

Credit: The Blue Brain Project / EPFL

At first glance, the creature known as Caenorhabditis elegans—commonly referred to as C. elegans, a type of roundworm—seems remarkably simple; it is comprised of only 959 cells and approximately 302 neurons. In contrast, the human body contains somewhere around 100 trillion cells and about 100 billion neurons in the brain. Yet decoding the genome for this worm and digitally reproducing it—something that could spur enormous advances in the understanding of life and how organisms work—is a challenge for the ages.

"The project will take years to complete. It involves enormous time and resources," says Stephen Larson, project coordinator for the OpenWorm Foundation. Larson, a neuro-scientist who is CEO of data software firm MetaCell, is not the only person focused on digitally reproducing life, or replicating evolution inside a computer. Researchers from a variety of fields are now attempting to decode worms, fly brains, and evolutionary processes in order to create virtual organisms and simulations of living creatures. It is safe to say that the field of executable biology—constructing computational models of biological systems—is coming to life.


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