Computation comes to life
Someday, our most sophisticated chip fabs could be living cells
Computerworld - For years biologists have used computer models and high-performance computers to simulate and understand living processes. More recently, computer scientists have drawn inspiration from biology to immunize information systems against malware and to create algorithms that mutate without human intervention. In all such cases, the underlying computer architecture has remained traditional and unremarkable -- software running on silicon-based digital processors.
But now researchers are taking the marriage of computer science and biology to a remarkable new level, turning cells into living computers with programmable DNA and biochemical memories, sensors, actuators and intercellular communication mechanisms.
MIT researcher Thomas Knight is a pioneer in the field, which he calls "synthetic biology." "In 1992, it became clear to me that the end of the road was coming for silicon," says Knight, who was a designer of integrated circuits at the time. "We would have to shift from electronics and physics to an approach in which chemistry is the fundamental technology. And the most sophisticated chemistry is biochemistry."
Chip-making processes today place atoms of silicon and dopants -- impurities added to define the chip's electrical properties -- crudely but well enough to make the chips work. As circuits shrink, however, it's getting harder to put the atoms, particularly the dopant atoms, in exactly the right places.
But biological processes for millions of years have been able to place single molecules and atoms in precisely the right order and locations. "Cells are good at building things -- the most sophisticated factories we have," Knight says. "We as engineers have no clue at all how to do that."
MIT researcher Thomas Knight holds vials of BioBricks.
Image Credit: Gary H. Anthes
Each of some 400 BioBricks is housed in a little vial of liquid containing copies of a carefully chosen and well-understood section of DNA. Each DNA fragment can mimic in some way the operations of conventional computer circuits. BioBricks can be used individually to perform very simple tasks, or they can be spliced together to do higher-level work. They allow someone to build programmable organisms without understanding the underlying biology.
There are BioBricks that act as logic gates, performing simple Boolean operations such as AND, NOT, NOT AND, OR, NOT OR and so on.
- Accelerating Cloud Deployment and Operations with Managed Services Companies that do not have sufficient in-house expertise to either deploy or maintain an IaaS cloud should turn to Managed Service Providers .
- Enable secure remote access to 3D data without sacrificing visual perfomance Design and manufacturing companies must adapt quickly to the demands of an increasingly global and competitive economy. To speed time to market for...
- Simplifying Product Design In A Complex World Product design engineering has moved far beyond the confines of ever-more powerful workstations. Companies can't afford to restrict projects to using only local...
- A Reference Architecture for the Internet of Things The aim of this is to provide Architects and Developers of IoT projects with an effective starting point that covers the major requirements...
- Keep Servers Up and Running and Attackers in the Dark An SSL/TLS handshake requires at least 10 times more processing power on a server than on the client. SSL renegotiation attacks can readily...
- On Demand: Mastering the Art of Mobile Content Management Mobile device usage in the enterprise has skyrocketed, and it continues to escalate. IT must answer to users who demand access to their... All Hardware White Papers | Webcasts
Our new weekly Consumerization of IT newsletter covers a wide range of trends including BYOD, smartphones, tablets, MDM, cloud, social and what it all means for IT. Subscribe now and stay up to date!