This species of bacteria is electroreceptive, and when it receives an input pattern of electric spikes, it can “translate” that input pattern into a pattern of chemical signals internally via its receptors. This internal pattern of chemicals, represented by varying “positive” and “negative” signals, is received and “recorded” in order by an inner membrane.

Another structure within the bacterium then reads the “recording” of the chemical pattern, and depending on the specific pattern, either responds by activating or by remaining inactive. So to use a binary system as a basic representation, if the pattern 001011 is read, the cell recognizes that as a pattern to which it is supposed to activate and does so; but if the pattern 110001 is read, the cell recognizes that as a pattern to which it is supposed to remain inactive (or more accurately, just fails to recognize the pattern), and does nothing. This activation causes the opening of channels in the cell membrane, to export a signal of its own.

But since this structure doesn’t actually have a conscious mind to comprehend a variety of different patterns, how can this cell (or rather, that internal organelle that “reads” the patterns) be able to recognize a given pattern so that the programmed response can be determined? What sort of cellular/molecular structure would allow for that function to occur with multiple different, specific patterns?

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    $\begingroup$ (1) One bacterium, many bacteria. (2) When a key is inserted in a keylock, there is a mechanism which senses the pattern of teeth or whatever on the key and responds by either unlocking the mechanism or by doing nothing. But the keylock mechanism "doesn’t actually have a conscious mind", so how can it "be able to recognize a given pattern so that the programmed response can be determined"? (3) At the lowest level, life is a complicated set of interlocked chemical reactions. A reaction either happens or or it doesn't. If it does, then in produces some results, which go to the next step... $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Jul 16, 2023 at 2:10
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    $\begingroup$ @AlexP (1) Shoot I just KNEW there was something not quite right as I typed it…will amend. (2) I did consider a physical/chemical “lock and key”-type model for it but I wasn’t certain of the amount of complexity for recognizing multiple specific patterns, adding up to a rather wide variety but still with specificity, would be able to be “contained” structurally in an organelle or protein complex. If it needs to recognize a huge amount of patterns, can those thousands of unique “lock” or “key” shapes all fit in there? That’s part of why I first thought of it as “reading” more than lock and key. $\endgroup$
    – inkwell87
    Jul 16, 2023 at 2:39
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    $\begingroup$ What are your specific expectations for an answer? Are you really on a site with a stated goal of imaginary worlds asking for something that someone with a PhD in organic chemistry might have trouble answering to the expectations of the tag? To be fair to respondents, can you provide a specific, exact, and factual "input" to your microbe and an expected response by the microbe so respondents can work with real chemistry rather than vague ideas? $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Jul 16, 2023 at 3:58
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    $\begingroup$ @JBH for an answer I was for the most part just expecting a potential real-world analogue or example, for some function in cells used to sense chemical balances or changes in an environment, and if a similar function may be used in this fiction creature to evaluate a “pattern” of chemical inputs or changes over time. The input itself could start as something patterned like a set of electric pulses, be “turned into” chemical signals as described, and expected response may be, let’s say, the activation of certain proteins to open channels in the membrane and export a response signal of its own. $\endgroup$
    – inkwell87
    Jul 16, 2023 at 5:39
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    $\begingroup$ @JBH to what extent does a Q&A need to be “science-based” need to apply for the tag to fit? I’m seeking “science-based” as in utilizing known fundamentals/rules and examples of real-world biology and chemistry, rather than conforming to rules within a fictional or invented system. If it needs to be more specific than that, e.g. using specific chemical behavior by name or not being able to include hypothetical or “alien biology” concepts that still generally conform to known biological fundamentals, let me know and I will alter the tags $\endgroup$
    – inkwell87
    Jul 16, 2023 at 5:42

2 Answers 2


Recognizing patterns does not require a conscious mind. Biological systems have been recognizing patterns for billions of years, and humans have been designing and building pattern-recognizing machines for thousands of years.

A pattern may exist (1) in space, (2) in time, and (3) in a combination of the two.

  • An ancient mechanism which is able to recognize a spatial pattern is the humble and thousands of years old pin tumble lock. You have multiple receptor sites, and the output is triggered only if the collection of receptors is in the right state.

  • To recognize a pattern in time the mechanism needs memory. In this context, the word memory simply means that the mechanism has multiple states, and can transition between them with the appropriate stimulus.

    For example, let's imagine how a cell could recognize the pattern HIGH-LOW-HIGH-HIGH.

    (Note that HIGH-LOW-HIGH-HIGH might be 1011, might be 0100, or none of them. Zeros and ones are higher level interpretations, at the lowest level a signal is only HIGH and LOW.)

    1. In the ground state, the receptor is set to produce two special enzymes, StepOneActivase and StepOneInactivase when receiving a HIGH signal.

    2. Once a HIGH signal has been received, the two special enzymes are produced and they begin decaying at fixed and different rates.

    3. If a HIGH signal is received when StepOneActivase is above a set level and StepOneInactivase is below a set level, a special enzyme is produced, Step ThreeActivase.

      See how this makes the mechanism recognize HIGH-LOW-HIGH, but not HIGH-HIGH-anything and not HIGH-LOW-LOW.

    4. If a HIGH signal is received when StepThreeActivase is above a set level, then StepFourActivase is produced, triggering whatever the pattern recognition mechanism is supposed to trigger.

    5. If any of the steps 2 to 4 does not happen timely, the enzymes decay below the required level and the mechanism is reset to the ground state.

Hope this helped.


In much of biology, "electrical signals" are actually sent via chemical ions. That means that your "electrical signals" could trigger a set of chemical reactions which unlock other reactions. For example, the first ions could unlock a chemical which is able to respond to other ions. The timing between receiving ions can be important as the chemical can change and no longer be available to receive a signal. See the description of how eyes actually see light and signal that to the nerves via sodium ions. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rod_cell

If you need a specific sequence of ions at specific timing in order to release a signal to the next cell, that could be due to a special group of chemicals that have to be triggered in sequence.


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