Californian and Israeli researchers have created a biological computer — a machine made from biological molecules — that has successfully decoded two images stored and encrypted within DNA.
Storing data in DNA isn’t all that hard — its primary purpose is to store genetic data, after all — but creating a biological computer to decodethose long strings of nucleotides is impressive. We’re not talking about a molecular computer that’s comparable to the CPU in your PC, though; rather, the scientists created a simple Turing machine-like finite state automaton. “Our biological computing device is based on the 75-year-old design by the English mathematician, cryptanalyst, and computer scientist Alan Turing,” says Ehud Keinan who led the research.
In the original Turing machine, a long strip of paper contains data and instructions. The data is fed into the machine, and rules (software) decide what kind of computation is done to the data. Basically, Keinan and co created a mixture of molecules in a test tube that were capable of performing the same, repeatable set of instructions on a helix of DNA. Encoded DNA goes into the biological computer and decoded DNA comes out the other. To track the progress of the machine, the DNA was tagged with fluorescent markers.
The end result, as you can see at the top of the story, is a biological computer that can take an encoded image (left) and decode it into fluorescent images (right). The power source, in case you’re wondering, is ATP — the same adenosine triphosphate that powers the metabolism of every cell in your body.
As far as the applications of biological computers go, the jury’s still out. Molecular computers are nothing like digital computers: Where a CPU generally processes data in a linear fashion, biological systems are basically a huge mess of chemical reactions that occur autonomously and without much in the way of timing. As such, biological computers are massively parallel. Molecular computers are also incredibly specialized: You can’t make a molecular CPU (at least not yet!); you have to carefully craft a mixture of molecules that perform a very specific task. It’s unlikely, at least for the time being, that biological computers will ever replace general purpose digital computers.
Still, it’s impossible to ignore that these systems are completely biological. There’s no electricity, no silicon, no external display; we’re storing usable data in DNA and processing it using molecules. Who’s to say that, one day, we won’t have a biotech implant that reads (or rewrites!) our DNA when needed? Imagine a future where you can store data in your bloodstream…
Read more at The Scripps Research Institute