A Biological Supercomputer?!

An artistic representation of the new biological microchip. Source: http://www.sciencealert.com/scientists-have-developed-the-world-s-first-living-breathing-supercomputer

Supercomputers are truly marvellous examples of what technology can accomplish, being used in many areas of science to work through some incredibly complex calculations. Their computational power is truly a feat of human engineering. But, unfortunately, they’re not perfect. Not only are they absolutely huge, often taking up an entire room, but they’re also expensive, prone to overheating, and a huge drain on power. They require so much of the stuff they often need their own power plant to function.

But fear not! As always, science is capable of finding a solution, and this one comes in the form of a microchip concept that uses biological components that can be found inside your own body. It was developed by an international team of researchers,  and it uses proteins in place of electrons to relay information. They’re movement is also powered by Adenosine Triphosphate (ATP), the fuel that provides energy for all biological processes occurring in your body right now. It can quite literally be described as a living microchip.

The chip’s size may not seem like much, measuring only 1.5 cm2, but if you zoom in you get a very different picture. Imagine, if you will, you’re in a plane looking down at an organised and very busy city. The streets form a sort of grid spanning from one end of the city to the other, which closely resembles the layout of this microchip. The proteins are then the vehicles that move through this grid, consuming the fuel they need as they go. The main difference being that, in this case, the streets are actually channels that have been etched into the chip’s surface.

“We’ve managed to create a very complex network in a very small area” says Dan Nicolau Sr. a bioengineer from McGill University in Canada, adding that the concept started as a “back of an envelope idea” after what he thinks was too much rum. I guess some innovative ideas require a little help getting started.

Once the rum was gone and the model created, the researchers then had to demonstrate that this concept could actually work. This was done by the application of a mathematical problem, with a successful result being if the microchip was able to identify all the correct solutions with minimal errors.

The process begins with the proteins in specific “loading zones” that guide them into the grid network. Once there, the journey through the microchip begins! The proteins start to move through the grid, via various junctions and corners, processing the calculation as they go.  Eventually, they emerge at one of many exits, each of which corresponds to one possible solution to the problem. In the specific case described by the researchers, analysis of their results revealed that correct answers were found significantly more often than incorrect ones, indicating that model can work as intended.

The researchers claim that this new model has many advantages over existing technology, including a reduction in cost, better energy efficiency, and minimal heat output, making it ideal for the construction of small, sustainable supercomputers. They also argue that this approach is much more scalable in practice, but recognise that there is still much to do to move from the model they have to a full on functioning supercomputer. It’s early days, but we know the idea works.

So, while it may be quite some time before we start seeing these biological supercomputers being actually put to use, it certainly seems like a fruitful path to follow. Society would no doubt benefit from the reduced cost and power usage that this new technology would bring, and these aspects would also make their application in scientific research much easier.

In fact, if the decrease in cost and power usage is a dramatic one, then scientists could potentially use a larger amount of these computers than they do at the moment. This a change that would have a huge impact on the kind of calculations that could be performed, and could potentially revolutionise many areas of science. Even though we’ll have to wait, that’s something I am very much looking forward.



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