Super-fast Computer From DNA: “Grows As It Computes”

DNA melding with technology. Image credits: Sergey Nivens/Shutterstock

DNA forms the basis of genetic code that determines the traits of all living things, from tiny microorganism to humans. In recent years, application of DNA in the artificial and technological world has increased exponentially.

The potential use of DNA to store an enormous amount of information has already led to start-ups being formed to offer data storage. This would not only be invisible to the naked eye, but nearly indestructible.

The fusion of computer science and biology at the University of Manchester demonstrates this truly well. They have demonstrated, with the help of DNA it is possible to build a new super-fast form of computer. Simply put it “grows as it computes.”

Professor Ross D. King and his team working at Manchester’s School of Computer Science, for the first time, revealed the feasibility of engineering a nondeterministic universal Turing machine (NUTM) using DNA molecules.

They believe the biological molecules could be harnessed for computing to such an extent that it would surpass the possibilities of even quantum computers.

For many years, the theoretical properties of such a computing machine, including its exponential boost in speed over electronic and quantum computers, have been well thought of.

double stranded DNA
Double helical structure of DNA. Image credits: Martin Driver

Prof. King explains, “It takes, even a quantum computer, a fraction of a second to search a maze with two different routes. Of which, the majority of time is due to ‘a lag’ in choosing which path to follow first. However, the NUTM can replicate itself and follow both paths at the same time to search the maze much faster.”

“This ‘magical’ property is possible because the computer’s processors are made of DNA rather than silicon chips.”

DNA in numbers
DNA computing. Image source: Thinkstock

In DNA computing, rather than using traditional silicon chips biological molecules are used for computations. The information is generally stored and represented using the four-character genetic alphabet – A [adenine], G [guanine], C [cytosine], and T [thymine]. Whereas, in traditional computers, the binary alphabet, series of 1s and 0s is used.

“Our computer’s ability to grow as it computes makes it faster than any other form of computer, and enables the solution of many computational problems previously considered impossible.”

Further, Prof. King feels, “As DNA molecules are very small, the NUTM could potentially utilize more processors than all the electronic computers in the world combined. Utterly outperforming the world’s current fastest supercomputer, while consuming just a tiny fraction of its energy”.

The greatest achievement of Alan Turing – the father of modern computing and the pioneer of first electronic stored memory computer- was conceptualizing an universal Turing machine (UTM).

Even though electronic computers are a form of UTM, no quantum UTM has yet been built.

Forget quantum UTM, let’s go for NUTM.


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Journal reference: Currin, A., Korovin, K., Ababi, M., Roper, K., Kell, D.B., Day, P.J., King, R.D. (2017) Computing exponentially faster: Implementing a nondeterministic universal Turing machine using DNA. Journal of the Royal Society Interface. (in press).

Source Manchester University Journal of the Royal Society Interface

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