Purchasing new hardware? Read our latest product comparisons

Wonder why we don't crash like computers? Yale explains


May 11, 2010

The control network of bacterium E Coli, left, and the Linux operating system, right

The control network of bacterium E Coli, left, and the Linux operating system, right

Whether right or for wrong, the human brain is often compared to a computer, and vice-versa. They both receive data, process it, store it, and output new data. Unlike computers, however, the human brain doesn’t crash. Yes, people have nervous breakdowns, but that has more to do with psychological stress than with data management. Now, researchers from Yale University have figured out why our brains succeed where computers fail.

The research team compared the genome of E coli bacteria with the Linux operating system. Both of the control networks, it turns out, are arranged in hierarchies. In E coli, the molecular networks are arranged in a pyramid. A limited number of master regulatory genes sit at the top, controlling a wide range of specialized functions beneath them.

By contrast, Linux is more like an inverted pyramid - numerous routines are at the top, controlling a few generic functions at the bottom. This is because software engineers save time and money by building on existing routines, instead of starting systems from scratch. Such an approach makes the system vulnerable to breakdowns, however, as even simple changes to a generic routine can be very disruptive. To minimize problems, the generic components need to be continually fine-tuned by software designers.

The Yale scientists noted that in a living organism, generic components that need to be constantly updated would not be a good survival trait. Instead, over billions of years of evolution, the E coli bacteria has evolved many highly specialized modules. Together, these modules are ready to handle most eventualities, resulting in a much more robust network.

About the Author
Ben Coxworth An experienced freelance writer, videographer and television producer, Ben's interest in all forms of innovation is particularly fanatical when it comes to human-powered transportation, film-making gear, environmentally-friendly technologies and anything that's designed to go underwater. He lives in Edmonton, Alberta, where he spends a lot of time going over the handlebars of his mountain bike, hanging out in off-leash parks, and wishing the Pacific Ocean wasn't so far away. All articles by Ben Coxworth

My educated guess: Once Linux (or Microsoft) evolved over billions of years, there will be no more computer breakdowns.

Andi Meyer

Cool. I couldn\'t get to the end of this though. Look, a rabbit!

Ted Cushman

Strange article. It purports to tell us why our brains don\'t crash, but instead, describes how the genome of a germ is different from Linux. I wonder if the first paragraph got written by a different person, who didn\'t see what the rest of the article was about.

Anyway, for your interested information, brains do crash. They crash when they have an epileptic seizure. Not everyone gets seizures, but anyone can get a seizure. It\'s just that some brains have a higher seizure threshold than others.

Brains also crash when they have a psychotic break. This isn\'t about psychological stress, it\'s about information processing, and some brains have a lower threshold for crashing due to information overload than others. That\'s why we have antipsychotic medications. They stabilize the brain. There are lots of people who are on anti-seizure meds to prevent psychotic breaks.

Finally, all of our brains crash when we\'ve been awake too long. We get sleepier and sleepier until we finally fall asleep and our brains get the opportunity to go into a reset cycle.



I find it seriously funny that the linux computer model is compared to a bacteria associated with fecal matter but then again I am a Macintosh user so I knew Microsoft systems were crap years and years ago.


I\'m sure Moore\'s law factors in there somewhere too so...probably by the end of the month :)

Santiago Hirsbrunner


some innocent bystander opinion (yet a CIO ;-))

Brains are Brains and Bacteria are Bacteria... although I cannot derive the straight rule of 3 where if Bacteria behave in the proposed form we do also and therefore as it is deducted we opposite to computers, do not crash.

To this I need to say that Programming has long since introduced object oriented programming that in a way mimics what is mentioned about bacteria, unfortunately PC\'s unlike brains host applications developed by countless developers with countless variables which set the priority to the scope of the program and very often with embeded floors and faults which then tend to be corrected with releases same as we do with experience.

Crashes are in any case common in both, brains and Systems (which after all also brains are) the difference is the consequences and the fact that brains are mostely uniquely wired and thus uniquely triggered to crash opposite to systems that in worse case scenarios can be restored or reset....

Still waiting to see how the code and perhaps even more the programs will look like for Organic Computing Systems... will we then learn more about brains, computing... or both?

Esteban Remecz

Thanks for half a page of run-on sentences, Esteban.

Danny Darden

hmm.. right, welcome ;-)

Esteban Remecz

It\'s surprising that with so much \"intelligence\" required to get to that scientific level of study, that such foolishness is applied when addressing the origins of life. I would love for these people to prove that the ecoli bacteria evolved over billions of years. Instead they just accept some myth of evolution to base their fundamentals of study on!


Knowing this information, computer programs can now design contingencies that are covering all options which creates a big broad base. Given the power of computers to crunch numbers, the contingencies can be non specific and unsophisticated initially as long as they are comprehensive. Thus a broad base can be created to emulate biological software. This research is more groundbreaking than the other comments indicate. The millions of years of evolution needed by e coli can eventually be replicated in an hour with the right amount of computing power and the right programs. This is going to result in exponential growth of computer intelligence at an astonishing rate.

Mitchel Eisenstein

Proponent of OOP? More like OOPS.

OOP is over rated garbage.

John Weiss

This conclusion is totally backwards. Random mutations over millions of years should produce something similar to the Linux software - constant add-ons and minor adjustments to existing code that result in routine breakdowns. Instead, the author states that the \'bacteria has evolved many highly specialized modules . . . resulting in a much more robust network.\' Really? Accidental changes over time result in a MORE robust network arranged in hierarchies? The bacteria code sounds more like the intelligent and purposeful design of an expert engineer than some arbitrary process. This is evidence against evolution.

SJ PPG Pilot

Pilot: Define \"arbitrary process\". Do you mean \"trial & error\"? We use both \"trial & error\" and goal oriented design but they are not entirely separate methods. The \"trial\" must be based on an expectation and experience, like design. As for the \"must have been an engineer\" argument: It explains nothing. We are still left with the question: Who designed the designer? You answer: The designer has always existed. I reply: Why couldn\'t life have always existed? If you can conceive of an \"eternal engineer\" you can conceive of \"eternal life\".


A strange article. With a stranger response to it! @ SJ PPG Pilot If you have evidence against evolution, what would be proof of evolution be against?

If I give you a complex machine to do a task and a simple one and we set them to do said task... law of averages says that the complex one would fail before the simple one. Admittedly we\'re quite complex, but based on simple mechanisms, once we fail the simple things will still be here (once we poison ourselves salmonella won\'t care and will just carry on)

Craig Jennings

The \'evidence against evolution\' comments are cute, but niaive. It\'s kind of like arguing that the hands of a clock aren\'t moving because they look like they\'re stationary, or that your fingernails aren\'t growing, or that the tectonic plates aren\'t shifting. Just because you can\'t witness something changing before your eyes doesn\'t mean that it has always been and will always be the way you see it before you. It\'s a tad ironic that the billion year long journey of discovery, trial and error that has culminated in the homo sapien results in him thinking that he and everything else has been that way all along. This is why I put creationists in the same box as flat-earthers. Excellent article btw, keep it up!


This is to HeyThisIsntJizzMag! Linux is not Microsoft, and I have IPod Touch which uses your favorite apple OS, and it crashes all the time.


That\'s right Esteban! The author goes to lengths to describe how further advanced a simple bacteria is against something it has taken our intellect thousands of years to develop as fragile as it is.

Alex Cooper

Does anyone who knows what all the coloured bars and lines in the picture represent, care to enlighten the rest of us?

Fascinating nonetheless. What amazing results come back from staggeringly huge amounts of parallelism over incomprehensible lengths of time. Congratulations Mr Universe - wikid outcome!!!


Yikes! I can\'t believe that the people who read this magazine actually are using this article as a backdrop to debate the existence of evolution!! I thought this was a magazine that intelligent, educated people read.... Thank you to those who actually bothered to defend evolution. It\'s a sad statement that evolution needs defending at all, especially for people who subscribe to this \'zine!

Jeremy Nasmith

There are literally thousands of mutations that take place in microbial lifeforms every day, possibly every second. Most of these mutations are are either neutral in effect or actually fatal in effect.

When a microbial lifeform is placed in an environment that is hostile, it will: retreat if possible, die, or if it has a mutation that allows it to continue to exist it will ignore the environment. As it undergoes mitosis, that mutation will be found in the two new cells.

The useful code may be passed on depending on the microbe either through sex (yes, can do that) with other members of the same type microbe or though ingestion by other types of microbes. A microbes DNA is not nearly as fixed as that of higher order beings and it will take new DNA acquired through the sex or ingestion and include it in its own DNA. This can be verified by any first year college student that has taken a histology course. Performing a recombinant DNA experiment is included in almost all the required labs. (Ours did it cross species, through ingestion).

This allows for rapid transmission of resistance to many environment factors and is a major problem with the creation of antibiotics.

This is not intelligent design. It is simply survival of the fittest for the current environment. Many species have established dominance over their environment in the past only to have an environmental change make them incapable of survival.

And for those who support intelligent design, attacking me does no harm, I also believe in it but this is not an intelligent design issue. The same techniques make much less virulent microbes if you choose the source to have a particular weakness and nature chooses randomly.


We reboot every night (for about 6 hours!) when my PC stays on for weeks on end. If i stayed up for weeks on end; I would be sure to crash!

Andy Minton

My guess is the bacterial genome network they compared with linux is which genes control the expression of other genes (transcription factors). It's like comparing which modules start other modules in linux. The equivalent of interactions between already running modules (function calls) would be to compare protein interactions. And they would have found out a much more complex net or web than linux, not a piramid.

Post a Comment

Login with your Gizmag account:

Related Articles
Looking for something? Search our articles