A motherboard with an image of an atom structure projected over one of its chips.

How close are we to organic computers?

  • A revolutionary method uses a virus to create faster computers
  • Researchers use CRISPR to create a biosynthetic dual-core computer within human cells
  • The first reprogrammable DNA computer has arrived
  • Are organic computers a viable alternative to silicon-based devices?

Computers have come a long way since their early days, becoming smaller, faster, and more powerful. Over the years, advancements in the computer industry have closely followed Moore’s Law, which states that the number of transistors that can be placed on a silicon chip is doubled every two years. However, as computers continue to get smaller, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to meet this goal and there will inevitably come a time when Moore’s Law will no longer be true. This has forced the computer industry to start looking for alternative solutions, with organic computers emerging as a promising concept.

 Image with text about the limitations of silicon computer chips and the emergence of organic computers
As inherent limitations in silicon chips threaten to slow down the pace of development in the computer industry, organic computers have emerged as a promising alternative.

Organic computers, sometimes also referred to as wetware computers, can be described as computational devices that are composed of organic materials, such as living neurons. While conventional computers can only operate in binary, a neuron can be in thousands of different states. This means it could potentially store far more information than a transistor, thus negating the space limitations of conventional computers. However, to this day, organic computers have largely remained confined to the realm of theory. That is starting to change, though, with several recent breakthroughs offering hope that organic computers with practical real-life applications may not be so far away after all.

A revolutionary method uses a virus to create faster computers

A team of researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD) recently announced that they have made a groundbreaking discovery that could one day allow us to develop much faster and more efficient computers. In a study published in the ACS Applied Nano Materials peer-reviewed journal, the researchers describe a method that uses a virus to create a better type of computer memory.

The idea revolves around reducing the millisecond time delays that occur during the transfer and storage of information between a traditional random access memory (RAM) chip and a hard drive. Previously, researchers have tried to achieve this by introducing phase-change memory, which can switch between amorphous and crystalline states by using a binary-type material like gallium antimonide. This allows phase-change memory to have a higher storage capacity than a hard drive, while being able to achieve the same speeds as a RAM chip. However, the problem with gallium antimonide is that it increases power consumption and has a tendency to undergo material separation at temperatures of around 345 degrees Celsius. The current process of manufacturing integrated circuits can reach temperatures of nearly 400 degrees Celsius.

“Our research team has found a way to overcome this major roadblock using tiny wire technology,” explains Assistant Prof Desmond Loke from SUTD. Using a virus known as M13 bacteriophage, the researchers were able to achieve a low-temperature construction of tiny germanium-tin-oxide wires and memory, which could enable future computers to reach speeds we can only dream about today. According to Loke, “this possibility leads the way to the elimination of the millisecond storage and transfer delays needed to progress modern computing.”

Researchers use CRISPR to create a biosynthetic dual-core computer within human cells

The CRISPR gene editing system has been one of the most controversial technologies to appear in recent years. From bringing an end to genetic diseases to helping us create tastier, more resilient crops, CRISPR has however already found a wide variety of applications in many different fields. And now, we can also add synthetic biology to this list, thanks to a team of researchers from ETH Zurich, who used CRISPR to build functional dual-core biocomputers within human cells.

To achieve this, the researchers first had to create a modified version of the CRISPR-Cas9 system. Rather than making cuts in the genome, this modified version uses a special variant of the Cas9 protein that acts as a processor to read input delivered by guide RNA sequences, regulate the expression of a particular gene, and make a particular protein as an output. Furthermore, by using CRISPR-Cas9 components from two different bacteria, the researchers were able to integrate two processor cores into a single cell, creating the world’s first biological dual-core processor.

Such computers could have a number of useful applications, including diagnosing and treating disease. For example, they could be programmed to detect biological signals in the body, such as certain metabolic products or chemical messengers. Depending on which biomarkers are present in the body, the biocomputers would then proceed to form a specific diagnostic molecule or a pharmaceutical substance. “Imagine a microtissue with billions of cells, each equipped with its own dual-core processor. Such ‘computational organs’ could theoretically attain computing power that far outstrips that of a digital supercomputer – and using just a fraction of the energy,” says Martin Fussenegger, Professor of Biotechnology and Bioengineering at the Department of Biosystems Science and Engineering at ETH Zurich and lead researcher on the project.

The first reprogrammable DNA computer has arrived

In theory, DNA computers were supposed to represent the next evolutionary step in the world of computing, promising to bring massive parallel computing architectures of unparalleled speed and power. However, reality turned out to be somewhat different, as every DNA computer built to this day has had no flexibility whatsoever and has only been able to run one algorithm, severely restricting its usefulness. But that may be about to change. A team of researchers led by computer scientist David Doty from UC Davis recently published a paper in the journal Nature, in which they describe a method that uses a simple trigger to persuade the same basic set of DNA molecules to run a number of different algorithms, essentially creating a reprogrammable DNA computer.

The idea behind DNA computers involves substituting electrical signals and silicon, which form the basis for conventional electronic computers, with chemical bonds and nucleic acid in order to create biomolecular software. Unlike previous attempts to create DNA computers, in which the DNA sequences required to produce a particular algorithm that would form the desired DNA structure had to be meticulously crafted, the researchers were able to design a system that could force the same basic pieces of DNA to form different DNA structures by producing different algorithms.

The researchers first used a technique called DNA origami to create a folded piece of DNA that would act as the seed that initiates the algorithmic assembly line. Regardless of the algorithm, the changes are made only to a few small sequences within the seed, while the seed itself remains largely unchanged throughout the process. The researchers also created a collection of 355 DNA tiles, each of which is composed of a unique arrangement of 42 nucleobases. These tiles can then be combined in different arrangements to produce different algorithms. Overall, the researchers were able to use this system to create 21 different algorithms that can perform a variety of tasks, such as generating patterns, recognising multiples of three, counting to 63, and electing a leader.

While the research is still in its early stages, reprogrammable DNA computers could have many potential applications, including creating molecular robots for drug delivery. “With these types of molecular algorithms, one day we might be able to assemble any complex object on a nanoscale level using a general programmable tile set, just as living cells can assemble into a bone cell or neuron cell just by selecting which proteins are expressed,” says Petr Sulc, an assistant professor at Arizona State University’s Biodesign Institute.

Are organic computers a viable alternative to silicon-based devices?

In recent years, organic computers have emerged as a potential alternative to silicon-based electronic devices, promising to bring unprecedented advances in computing speed, efficiency, processing power, and storage capabilities. However, turning this idea into reality proved to be rather difficult and most of the research involving organic computers still remains in its very early stages.

While some researchers were able to create prototypes that serve as proof of concept, it will probably be years before we’ll see an organic computer with practical, real-life applications. Still, as the pace of development in the computer industry continues to slow down and Moore’s Law approaches its end, it’s certainly an idea worth exploring further, one that could herald a new phase in the evolution of computers.

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