How’s this for cutting edge? Researchers have managed to harness DNA to perform rudimentary computing tasks making for the world’s first biological computers.
SAN FRANCISCO—It almost sounds too fantastic to be true, but a growing amount of research supports the idea that DNA, the basic building block of life, could also be the basis of a staggeringly powerful new generation of computers.
If it happens, the revolution someday might be traced to the night a decade ago when University of Southern California computer scientist Leonard Adleman lay in bed reading James Watson’s textbook Molecular Biology of the Gene.
“This is amazing stuff,” he said to his wife, and then a foggy notion robbed him of his sleep: Human cells and computers process and store information in much the same way.
Computers store data in strings made up of the numbers 0 and 1. Living things store information with molecules represented the letters A, T, C and G.
There were many more intriguing similarities, Adleman realized as he hopped out of bed. He began sketching the basics of DNA computing.
Those late-night scribbles have long since given way to hard science, backed by research grants from NASA, the Pentagon and other federal agencies. Now a handful of researchers around the world are creating tiny biology-based computers, hoping to harness the powers of life itself.
They call their creations “machines” and “devices.” Really, they are nothing more than test tubes of DNA-laden water, and yet this liquid has been coaxed to crunch algorithms and spit out data.
The researchers admit that DNA will probably never replace silicon as a general-use processor in your PC, but it’s not entirely beyond the realm of possibility. Still the potential for use in medicine and other fields makes their development an important one. Data storage may also be a possibility.
After all, a single gram of dried DNA, about the size of a half-inch sugar cube, can hold as much information as a trillion compact discs. Adleman senses that can be exploited somehow, some way.
“I’m just not sure how,” he said.
It’ll be awhile before practical applications will be developed for this, but it could turn out to be a big deal in the long run.