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Wetware: A Computer in Every Living Cell [Hardcover]

Dennis Bray
4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (19 customer reviews)

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Book Description

May 26, 2009 0300141734 978-0300141733 0

How does a single-cell creature, such as an amoeba, lead such a sophisticated life? How does it hunt living prey, respond to lights, sounds, and smells, and display complex sequences of movements without the benefit of a nervous system? This book offers a startling and original answer.

In clear, jargon-free language, Dennis Bray taps the findings of the new discipline of systems biology to show that the internal chemistry of living cells is a form of computation. Cells are built out of molecular circuits that perform logical operations, as electronic devices do, but with unique properties. Bray argues that the computational juice of cells provides the basis of all the distinctive properties of living systems: it allows organisms to embody in their internal structure an image of the world, and this accounts for their adaptability, responsiveness, and intelligence.

In Wetware, Bray offers imaginative, wide-ranging and perceptive critiques of robotics and complexity theory, as well as many entertaining and telling anecdotes. For the general reader, the practicing scientist, and all others with an interest in the nature of life, the book is an exciting portal to some of biology’s latest discoveries and ideas.

Editorial Reviews


“Dennis Bray engages in a provocative debate about the computational capabilities of protein networks, while taking the reader on a delightful ramble across biology, from the antics of Stentor to the plasticity of synapses, with PacMan and robot salamanders along the way.”—Jeremy Gunawardena, Director, Virtual Cell Program, Harvard Medical School
(Jeremy Gunawardena)

"A provocative topic engaged in fine style by an author in full command of the relevant facts and history. This is a very interesting book."—Dale Purves, Center for Cognitive Neuroscience and Department of Neurobiology, Duke University
(Dale Purves)

“A beautifully written journey into the mechanics of the world of the cell, and even beyond, exploring the analogy with computers in a surprising way. This book is full of new insights. Dennis Bray is master of his wetware.”—Denis Noble, author of The Music of Life
(Denis Noble)

“Bray has already done a great service.... Wetware will get the reader thinking.”—Science
(Science 2009-08-21)

“Drawing on the similarities between Pac-man and an amoeba and efforts to model the human brain, this absorbing read shows that biologists and engineers have a lot to learn from working together.” —Discover Magazine


“Biology and information lie at the heart of a new scientific revolution. In this timely and illuminating volume, Dennis Bray passionately weaves a compelling case for a computational view of life.”—Martyn Amos, author of Genesis Machines: The New Science of Biocomputing
(Martyn Amos)

“Bray does an admirable job explaining complex biological phenomena, such as the lac operon in E. coli or non-coding RNAs, to non-experts while keeping the attention of people already familiar with these ideas. In this way, Wetware is a complex, highly thought-provoking look at how cells are similar to computers. Or, perhaps more correctly, how computers should try to be like living cells.”—Laura DMare, Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine
(Laura DeMare Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine)

About the Author

Dennis Bray is professor emeritus, University of Cambridge, and coauthor of several influential texts on molecular and cell biology. In 2007, he was awarded the prestigious European Science Prize in Computational Biology.

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 280 pages
  • Publisher: Yale University Press (May 26, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0300141734
  • ISBN-13: 978-0300141733
  • Product Dimensions: 1 x 6.4 x 9.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (19 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #755,758 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
56 of 58 people found the following review helpful
The idea that cellular membranes and contents may be functional equivalents of computers may appear strange, if not implausible. Dennis Bray sets forth a highly readable, absolutely intriguing case for the machine nature of proteins that are in a constant dialog with their inner (the cell juice or cytosol) and outer environments, exploiting thermal diffusion, dynamic equilibrium, weak and strong bonding forces, all of which result in a fantastic orchesta of switching on and off to produce this phenomenon well call life.

There is something breathtaking in Bray's thesis, which is stated in such lucid and straightforward language that the general reader will wonder why cellular biology ever seemed like a difficult or alien subject.

Computational biology gives one the sense that we are at the threshold of yet another of civilization's "Spinoza moments" where the entire framework for thinking about life is dramatically, and irrevocably restructured.

Rather than being sourced in unfathomable complexity, life in this model is founded on processes of utmost simplicity, yet have evolved marvellously dense control networks within the structure of those simple rules.

Bray's Wetware is essential reading for the non specialist who wants to know where one of the most significant trends in science and phiolsophy are headed.
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47 of 52 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars complexity reduced June 10, 2009
The premise for this book is that systems of proteins can convey and process information at the level of a single free-living cell. These proteins act as switches or transistors, functioning as the nervous system does for multicellular organisms. Bray presents abundant evidence that this is the case. Several well-studied cellular examples (e.g. bacterial chemotaxis) are used to illustrate the principle that complex behaviors and even the appearance of "consciousness" can be the product of relatively simple combinations of switches and outcomes. This is augmented by discussion of simple robots (e.g. Grey Walter's "tortoises") and computer games (e.g. PacMan), illustrating the point that some extremely complex behaviors can result from extremely simple circuits and motors.

His insight that "it is much more difficult to infer internal structure from the observation of behavior than to create the structure that gives the behavior in the first place" is a powerful one, and should give pause to anyone who subscribes to the notion of "intelligent design", or who thinks that cellular activities are "irreducibly complex". Humans can be easily fooled into believing that human-like attributes can only be attributed to human-like intelligence.. But the notion that a cell is so complex that it must have been designed by a supernatural agent is similar to the response one might imagine if a caveman was confronted by a simple robot. In both cases the object seems beyond comprehension; in both cases the object can actually be described by simple physical laws, circuits and switches.
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44 of 49 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars This is one fantastic book! July 21, 2009
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This book blew me away - my head is spinning - I'm a firm believer in evolution (of course), but having read this book I have more of a glimpse of the complexities involved I've decided that we can't possibly exist (grin).

Of course the title of this book doesn't imply a computer like we think of ... more the ability to perform computations and make decisions. To be honest I hadn't really thought about this stuff in this depth before, but as it says on the cover:

"How does a single-cell creature, such as an amoeba, lead such a sophisticated life? How does it hunt living prey, respond to lights, sounds, and smells, and display complex sequences of movements without the benefit of a nervous system?"

Having read this book I can just about understand how an amoeba can move around and hunt its prey etc ... and I can also understand how groups of similar cells can perform "quorum sensing" (detect their relative concentration - i.e how many of them are there in a given area) ... remembering that we're talking about single cells here...

But to go from there to the current peak of human evolution (that would be me ... and you I suppose ... but let's focus on me :-)

... well, all I can say is that "the mind boggles" ...

I'm still trying to wrap my brain around everything that I learned.

This is a fantastic book - highly recommended!!!
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23 of 24 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Falls short of expectations December 12, 2009
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This book get's close, but doesn't really hit the target of its title's promise.

Just to get one critique out of the way, Bray is largely correct when he states that the book does not suggest that single cell organisms have consciousness. Nevertheless, some language still remains that could be rephrased to remove vestiges of those thoughts. The last page also intimates that there could be a central organizing "brain" in an amoeba, which I think is neither required not indicated by the rest of the book.

Where this book excels is it's accessible description of cell processes from a computing model perspective. This works very well and the metaphor is extended to genetic networks and switches, and neural networks. He also includes a bried discussion of robotics, which are constructed with computer systems.

Where this book falls short is that while the metaphor of computation can be used in a host of processes, it is not formalized to show that computation is being done by the cell and organ systems, and not something else that looks like computation.
This might seem like a semantic quibble, but it is important, because otherwise this book just follows in the long tradition of describing living systems in the technology of the day, e.g. clockwork machines in the C18th.

Overall this book is well written, particularly the chapters on cell biology and is well worth reading by the general reader.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Think small.
Excellent and a good companion to
Life's Ratchet: How Molecular Machines Extract Order from Chaos
which I also recommend highly.
Published 3 months ago by Tom West
4.0 out of 5 stars Informative and engaging
“Wetware” by Dennis Bray is a very readable account of recent research in cell biology, focusing on the mechanisms that are used inside cells to interact with and adapt to their... Read more
Published 5 months ago by Mark B. Friedman
5.0 out of 5 stars Beautiful
This is one of the most well written books by a premiere scientist of his field.

If the biomechanical operations on the cellular scale garnered the interest on par with... Read more
Published 6 months ago by Amazon Customer
5.0 out of 5 stars Great ! Great !
Pure genius . Very readable especially for the novice.logically and clearly presented with insight and understanding. Read more
Published 8 months ago by ray lev
4.0 out of 5 stars fascinating
level of detail is just right for someone who's not a biologist but who has a college-level intro to science in their background
Published 18 months ago by Daniel
5.0 out of 5 stars Challenging, but Well Worth the Effort!
Wetware is not a light read. In fact, it should be taken slowly. I found myself spending up to a half an hour on some pages, just thinking about what Prof. Bray was saying. Read more
Published on February 23, 2012 by prototypo
4.0 out of 5 stars How cells work
The early chapters of the book are the best ones: they explain very well how components of a cell (e.g. Read more
Published on May 4, 2011 by W. Cheung
1.0 out of 5 stars Author does not even seem to know the term "gene regulatory network"
This book was a big disappointment for me. I didn't expect a book for a professional, but I did at least expect to read the background of research in computational cellular... Read more
Published on February 14, 2011 by Anne van Rossum
2.0 out of 5 stars Huge Disappointed
Paradigms are a very powerful thing. They can capture imagination of many and provide intellectual tools and shortcuts for making sense of otherwise complicated or even intractable... Read more
Published on November 13, 2010 by Dr. Bojan Tunguz
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent book on the inner workings of living cells
This is a beautiful book, and Bray is an uncommonly good writer. He explains the inner workings of a cell, and the relationships between cells and their environments, with clarity... Read more
Published on November 7, 2010 by Elizabeth A. Gibson
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