From complex living systems to smarter computers
[ 19/03/2013 ]


The European collaborative research Project “SWARM-ORGAN” tries to understand complex living systems such as cells making an organ, or the spatially-controlled growing of a plant, and to apply these principles to technological systems, in particular more intelligent and adaptable robot swarms.

The Project, with a 2,221,000€ budget, is funded by the European Comission under the 7th Framework Programme and will be performed by researchers in Spain, United Kingdom and the Netherlands.

Compared to man-made technology, living organisms have an enviable ability to adjust to new situations, make complex decisions, and even to heal themselves when damaged. By contrast, technological systems struggle to cope with the unexpected. An important example of such clever biology is multicellular organisation. The millions of cells, which make up an early embryo, can communicate only with their neighbours, and yet they are each capable of making the right decisions so that together they collaborate to build organs and whole bodies. Understanding how they achieve this will not only benefit biomedical research, but could also help us to build more intelligent technology.

The SWARM-ORGAN project focuses on systems containing large numbers of autonomous but relatively simple agents, whose goal is to collectively organise themselves into complex spatial arrangements despite each agent having only local awareness. They form complex patterns and deal with conflict or damage by acting locally but for the benefit of the whole. “Although we originally came from the biological questions of embryo development, I’ve been increasingly fascinated by the potential similarities between multicellular organs, and robot swarms” explained James Sharpe, the coordinator of the project. “The plan is that this project will be equally relevant to both fields, by focusing on the underlying organisational principles”.

The goal of the project is to identify the principles of these systems and use them to design a theoretical framework about distributed adaptive control. The researchers will explore a specific approach, the gene regulatory networks, as a potentially powerful control method for these systems. Comparing networks between different biological processes, they will be able to identify patterns and fundamental principles that can be applied to technology.

The project is coordinated by ICREA Research Professor James Sharpe, acting coordinator of the Systems Biology Programme at the Centre for Genomic Regulation (CRG) in Barcelona (Spain). The research partners are Prof. Yaochu Jin, University of Surrey (United Kingdom), Dr. Jaap Kaandorp, Universiteit van Amsterdam (Netherlands) and Dr. Veronica Grieneisen, John Innes Centre (United Kingdom).

About the Centre for Genomic Regulation (CRG)
The CRG is an international biomedical research institute of excellence, created in December 2000. It is legally constituted as a non-profit foundation and has the participation from the Catalan Government through the Economy and Knowledge Department and the Health Department, as well as from the Pompeu Fabra University, and the Spanish Ministry of Economy and Competitiveness.

Its mission is to discover and advance knowledge for the benefit of society, public health and economic prosperity.

The CRG believes that the medicine of the future depends on the groundbreaking science of today. This requires an interdisciplinary scientific team focused on understanding the complexity of life from the genome to the cell to a whole organism and its interaction with the environment, offering an integrated view of genetic diseases.

About the John Innes Centre
The John Innes Centre,, is a world-leading research centre based on the Norwich Research Park, The JIC’s mission is to generate knowledge of plants and microbes through innovative research, to train scientists for the future, and to apply its knowledge to benefit agriculture, human health and well-being, and the environment. JIC delivers world class bioscience outcomes leading to wealth and job creation, and generating high returns for the UK economy. JIC is one of eight institutes that receive strategic funding from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council,

About the Universiteit van Amsterdam
The University of Amsterdam (UvA) is a leading international research institution that values, promotes and rewards excellent research. The UvA enables researchers to perform ground-breaking research combining a broad research palette with quality by investing selectively in research priority areas.

The Computational Science Group at the UvA seeks to discover, through modelling and simulation, the way distributed information is being processed in complex systems. We focus on theory, applications, and problem-solving environments. Within computational biology we do research at a range of different levels of organisation (genome-gene regulatory networks-cells-tissue-organism). We work on modelling and analysis of gene regulation, biomechanical models of collective behaviour of cells, spatial physiology,  biomineralisation and on macroscopical models of morphogenesis and the impact of the physical environment. 

About the University of Surrey
The University of Surrey is a research-led institution pursuing learning, scholarship and research, and advancing and disseminating knowledge. The University is committed to working closely with its students, business, government and civil society to transition knowledge to the benefit of humanity.

The University of Surrey is committed to being a leading national and international university.Our high quality teaching, learning, research and enterprise, will be delivered in a financially and environmentally sustainable manner, within an academic community that values collegiality and professionalism, providing our students with skills that allow them to maximize their potential.