Power-crazed boffin gets Doom running through the medium of gut bacteria

The Doom logo compressed for display via gut bacteria.
(Image credit: id Software)

Doom has had one of the most remarkable afterlives of any game, from the still-thriving modding and speedrunning scenes to the meme-slash-mission of getting this thing running on any and all technology available to humanity. You've seen the pregnancy tests, the Lego brick, the potatoes, the engineers who got it going on a 1-milliwatt chip while sombrely telling us all what serious business this is. Now, it's time for some cell shading.

Lauren Ramlam is a biology PhD student at MIT, and for the final project of the synthetic biology course had one big idea: let's get Doom displaying via gut bacteria. Ramlam's written report briefly outlines the history of Doom running via various things, before coming to the inescapable question of whether "biological systems might be engineered to host this classic millennial FPS."

Millennial FPS? Ramlam admits that running Doom on such cells would be a gargantuan task, but within the Doom-runs-on-everything culture simply getting the game displayed on a given device's screen is considered a success. Thus her challenge is to engineer a way in which Doom can be displayed by cells, via the medium of fluorescent proteins (the project is inspired by a 2020 proof-of-concept E. coli digital display). Essentially, making the cells function as pixels on a 32 x 48 black-and-white display.

The theory is relatively understandable: visually compress Doom's frames, then replicate which pixels are 'on' and 'off' to approximate those frames via flourescing bacteria. The only bottleneck Ramlam's project has is a fairly major one, however. The bacteria do this relatively slowly and, after generating each 'frame', there is significant lag time before the cells return to their starting state and are ready to display the next frame.

So Ramlam has this display working but, if you wanted to actually play Doom on it, you'll need roughly 600 years:

"In conclusion, it takes approximately 70 minutes to reach the peak display output of GFP [the fluorescent protein] in an on well, and a total of 8 hours and 20 minutes for the cell to return approximately to the starting state," says Ramlam. "The framerate for the original Doom is capped at 35 frames/second, and the average playthrough time is ~5 hours. Doing the math, this means that it would take 599 years to run Doom on cells, according to this simulation."

Ramlam theorises this can be sped up by decreasing the time it takes for the bacteria to return to its starting state, and has posted the code behind it, but until the tech gets even better that's your lot. "The future of Doom Runs On Everything is bright," says Ramlam, "even if it is over half a millennium from now."

Rich Stanton

Rich is a games journalist with 15 years' experience, beginning his career on Edge magazine before working for a wide range of outlets, including Ars Technica, Eurogamer, GamesRadar+, Gamespot, the Guardian, IGN, the New Statesman, Polygon, and Vice. He was the editor of Kotaku UK, the UK arm of Kotaku, for three years before joining PC Gamer. He is the author of a Brief History of Video Games, a full history of the medium, which the Midwest Book Review described as "[a] must-read for serious minded game historians and curious video game connoisseurs alike."