Interaction computing is inspired by the observation that cell metabolic/regulatory systems construct order dynamically, through constrained interactions between their components and based on a wide range of possible inputs and environmental conditions. The goals of this work are to (i) identify and understand mathematically the natural subsystems and hierarchical relations in natural systems enabling this and (ii) use the resulting insights to define a new model of computation based on interactions that is useful for both biology and computation. The dynamical characteristics of the cellular pathways studied in systems biology relate, mathematically, to the computational characteristics of automata derived from them, and their internal symmetry structures to computational power. Finite discrete automata models of biological systems such as the lac operon, the Krebs cycle and p53–mdm2 genetic regulation constructed from systems biology models have canonically associated algebraic structures (their transformation semigroups). These contain permutation groups (local substructures exhibiting symmetry) that correspond to ‘pools of reversibility’. These natural subsystems are related to one another in a hierarchical manner by the notion of ‘weak control’. We present natural subsystems arising from several biological examples and their weak control hierarchies in detail. Finite simple non-Abelian groups are found in biological examples and can be harnessed to realize finitary universal computation. This allows ensembles of cells to achieve any desired finitary computational transformation, depending on external inputs, via suitably constrained interactions. Based on this, interaction machines that grow and change their structure recursively are introduced and applied, providing a natural model of computation driven by interactions.