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Vital cell component could power future 'bio-supercomputers'

28 February 2016

The substance that provides energy to all the cells in our bodies, adenosine triphosphate (ATP), may also be able to power the next generation of supercomputers.

Instead of the electrons, short strings of proteins ('biological agents') travel around the circuit of this model computer in a controlled way, their movements powered by ATP (graphic: Till Korten)

So claims an international team of researchers led by Professor Dan Nicolau of the Department of Bioengineering at McGill University in Canada. In an article published in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, they describe a model of a biological computer that is able to process information very quickly and accurately using parallel networks in the same way that massive electronic supercomputers do.

Except that the model bio supercomputer they have created is a whole lot smaller than current supercomputers, uses much less energy, and uses proteins present in all living cells to function.

"We've managed to create a very complex network in a very small area," says Dan Nicolau, Sr. He began working on the idea with his son, Dan Jr., more than a decade ago and was then joined by colleagues from Germany, Sweden and The Netherlands, some seven years ago.

The model bio-supercomputer that the Nicolaus (father and son) and their colleagues have created came about thanks to a combination of geometrical modelling and nanoscale engineering. They say it is a first step towards a demonstration of a viable biological supercomputer.

The circuit is described by the researchers as looking a bit like a road map of a busy and very organised city as seen from an aircraft. Just as in a city, cars and trucks of different sizes, powered by motors of different kinds, navigate through channels that have been created for them, consuming the fuel they need to keep moving.

However, their bio-supercomputer model comprises a chip measuring about 1.5cm square in which channels have been etched. Instead of the electrons that are propelled by an electrical charge and move around within a traditional microchip, short strings of proteins (which the researchers call biological agents) travel around the circuit in a controlled way, their movements powered by ATP.

Because it is run by biological agents, there is very little heating and it uses far less energy than standard electronic supercomputers, making it more sustainable.

Although the model bio-supercomputer was able to tackle a complex classical mathematical problem very efficiently using parallel computing, the researchers recognise that there is still a lot of work ahead to move from the model they have created to a full-scale functional computer.

"Now that this model exists as a way of successfully dealing with a single problem, there are going to be many others who will follow up and try to push it further, using different biological agents, for example," says Nicolau.

"It's hard to say how soon it will be before we see a full scale bio super-computer. One option for dealing with larger and more complex problems may be to combine our device with a conventional computer to form a hybrid device. Right now we're working on a variety of ways to push the research further."

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