Why E.Coli Bacteria Is Better Than Your Computer

Computers crash all the time, even when running Linux. Human beings do not. A Yale study compares the structure of the Linux operating system to E. Coli bacteria to help determine why you and I suffer so few system crashes.

I suppose the prevailing question is this: Why the hell would anyone compare Linux to a rod-shaped bacterium that is commonly found in the lower intestine of warm-blooded organisms? According to study author and Albert L. Williams Professor of Biomedical Informatics Mark Gerstein, there was little or no alcohol involved in coming up with the idea.

"It is a commonplace metaphor that the genome is the operating system of a living organism. We wanted to see if the analogy actually holds up."

So what did the study find?

Why E.Coli Bacteria Is Better Than Your Computer

On the left we have the hierarchical organization of the transcriptional regulatory network of bacterium E. Coli. On the right, the Linux call graph. Both are vaguely pyramid shaped, but one has the point on the bottom and the other on the top, and that makes all the difference.

Linux is built with many different top-level routines that control a few generic operations at the bottom. According to Gerstein, that organization is due to software engineers building off of existing routines instead of creating them from scratch, an expensive, time consuming process.

So creating Linux with the inverted pyramid structure is more timely and cost-effective, but it leads to problems.

"But it also means the operating system is more vulnerable to breakdowns because even simple updates to a generic routine can be very disruptive," Gerstein said. To compensate, these generic components have to be continually fine-tuned by designers.

The E. Coli bacteria, on the other hand, cannot be fine-tuned, and the slightest disruption to its network can result in fatal mutations. Because of this, it features a base of highly specific modules controlling different functions. If one goes slightly off-kilter, the entire structure won't tip over. It's this sort of robust organization that has weather millions of years of evolution, while Linux has not. Not yet, at least.

It's also an excellent argument for biological computing. Perhaps one day we can cast off the bonds of microprocessors and graphics cards and literally give birth to powerful new organic computers.

You can read the full study at the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences website.

Scientists Explain Why Computers Crash But We Don't [Psyorg.com]