See Inside December 2010

Borrowing Nature's Code

Algorithms inspired by Mother Nature help us run our vast digital biosphere

AS COMPUTER SCIENTISTS try and figure out how to manage an increasingly complex digital world, they are increasingly turning for inspiration to Mother Nature. “Life runs on sunlight and information,” says Janine Benyus, president of the Biomimicry Institute in Missoula, Mont. A species is constantly evolving to find the optimal way to survive in a particular habitat. “Organisms really do lend themselves to people looking for novel ways to solve information-processing problems,” she says.

Dendritic cells, for instance, would seem at first glance to have nothing to do with computer security. But these cells are Paul Reveres of the mammalian immune system, sounding the alarm on invading pathogens. Computer scientist Julie Greensmith of the University of Nottingham in England designed a “dendritic cell algorithm” that detects computer viruses and other malicious code in the same way that our immune systems sense real viruses.

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