Scientists working on using DNA for computers
Scientists at Brock University believe that DNA will eventually be used to enhance the memory capacity of computers.
DNA can generate binary codes just like computers do, and do not require electricity or materials such as silicon, aluminum and cobalt to do so.
As a result, scientists at Brock have been examining ways that DNA can utilized to enhance computing capacity. In fact, chemist Feng Li, graduate student Xiaolong Yang, postdoctoral fellow Yanan Tang and undergraduate student Sarah Traynor have devised a strategy that simplifies the design of DNA circuits that may eventually be used in a DNA computer.
Li says scientists around the world are racing to develop DNA for use in information technology, mostly by trying to use DNA as a computing component to construct a molecular computer.
“It’s not the electricity-based computer we use now, but rather the fundamental units are molecules of DNA,” Li says.
Brock’s research team recently developed a method, called the ‘allosteric DNA toehold (A-toehold) strategy’, in which DNA molecules can be manipulated using the principle of allostery, which is used widely for regulating enzyme activities by nature. This is done within a process called “toehold exchange,” in which an input DNA strand binds to a sticky end (toehold) on another DNA molecule.
Li says the toehold exchange method streamlines the design of DNA circuits.
“If you want to use DNA to replace a computer, you also need to somehow manipulate those DNA strands the way you want. You need ‘rules’ to manipulate those DNA. There are existing rules you can use to manipulate DNA, but what we’re trying to do is to simplify this process by providing alternative rules. If you simplify the design, you save DNA molecules, you save money.”
How the output of the DNA computer, a screen displaying text, graphics and video in our current conventional computers, will be displayed for the average user is still unknown, says Li, but more of these unknowns will eventually be answered through further research.
Just like living creatures use DNA to store genetic information, Li notes that DNA computers will be used to store computer data.
“In principle, you can save anything into DNA,” says Li. “For example, there are researchers who coded an entire book into DNA sequences. It’s different from hardware, you only need a tiny amount of DNA to store an entire book.”