Science fiction or reality: what if biological computers were the future of computing?

“Living” computers, because they use biological cells to function. It sounds like science fiction and yet it is indeed a reality. Explanations.

Today the computers as we know them are composed of metals and minerals such as aluminum, copper, iron, lead, silicon, nickel, etc. But it is not necessarily necessary to use electronic chips to operate your machine.

Much like our brains, computers can also use living cells to perform all their tasks. With a major advantage: unlike a conventional computer which works in binary, a neuron can adopt thousands of different states. And therefore potentially store a lot more information.

We have to go back to 2012 to see the very first “biological computer” or biocomputer appear. Born from the work of the Scripps Research Institute in California and the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, this machine was made up of biomolecules capable of deciphering images encrypted on DNA chips. In 2016, it is the turn of a European project, Abacus, to give birth to a biological supercomputer. It worked thanks to adenosine triphosphate (ATP), the substance that provides energy to the cells of the human body.

What is a biological computer?

This type of machine uses biological molecules, such as DNA or proteins, to store and process data. These cells are then interconnected to electronic circuits.

Unlike traditional computers – which use silicon-based electronic circuits to process data – biological computers therefore operate through chemical reactions. And one of the main advantages is that these living cells are, like any other living organism, capable of adapting and developing on their own.

At least in theory. Putting it into practice is extremely complex. Managing to program living organisms in such a way as to use their cellular machinery to solve problems is a challenge. But research is progressing. In 2016, scientists from Lund University (Sweden) used the nanotechnology to create a biological computer capable of solving certain mathematical problems much faster and more energy-efficiently than conventional electric computers.

Cheap, ecological, ultra-powerful…

“The fact that the molecules are very cheap and that we have now demonstrated the computing power of these machines leads me to believe that biocomputers have the prerequisites for practical use within ten years”, said in 2016 Heiner Linke, director of NanoLun at the University of Sweden. For him, this type of machine could even come to compete with quantum computers – with extremely powerful computing capacities – on certain types of exercises.

In June 2022, a team from Dresden University of Technology published the results of their research in the review ACS Nanoscience Au. Till Korten and his team have developed a glass molecular chip. “Our concept is based on microtubules that “pack” kinesins [des protéines motrices, ndlr] in the channels of the chip. Since they all move at the same time, many calculations can be performed simultaneously”, says the researcher. And the authors of the study specify that their bio-computer consumes 10,000 times less energy than an average computer.

“A ‘biological engine’ requires less than 1% of the energy needed by an electronic transistor to perform its function. In addition, the use of proteins or DNA is potentially much cheaper than the manufacture of expensive electronic chips. »

Heiner Linke

NanoLun, Sweden

Indeed, the bio-computer is a much greener solution than current machines. Heiner Linke estimates that a “biological motor” requires less than 1% of the energy needed by an electronic transistor to fulfill its function. In addition, the use of proteins or DNA is potentially much cheaper than the manufacture of expensive electronic chips. Indeed, once a biological cell has been programmed, it is extremely profitable to cultivate billions of others. Because it only takes the cost of the nutrient solutions and the time of a laboratory technician.

Challenges Awaiting the Biological Computer

If biocomputers are emerging in various scientific laboratories around the world, we are still a long way from mass production. It is true that the paradigm shift requires a real adjustment. These biological machines are also called “wetware computers” or “wet computers” because, in order to use living organisms, a special maintenance system must be set up, a sort of nourishing “chemical bath”. Food, hydration and an adequate environment (especially in terms of temperature) therefore replace the simple fact of pressing a button to supply a machine with electricity.

The use of these new types of computers could be considered in environments considered extreme for conventional computer equipment (in the depths of the ocean, in very cold or very hot conditions, etc.). By selecting suitable living cells, this type of barrier could disappear.

The interfacing between living organisms and electronic circuits also remains today very complex to achieve and sometimes undermines the power and calculation speed of biological computers. One can therefore wonder if this type of organic machinery is a viable alternative to silicon-based devices. Certainly prototypes exist and are functional, but it will probably be necessary to wait many more years before seeing a bio-computer used within the framework of practical applications. However, the potential seems enormous.

Above all, the use of these new types of computers could be envisaged in environments considered extreme for conventional computer equipment (in the depths of the ocean, in very cold or very hot conditions, etc.). By selecting suitable living cells, this type of barrier could disappear.

Similarly, scientists are working on the development of biological microcomputers. Modules with great computing capabilities, but with dimensions so small that they could be inoculated into the human body.

Like nano-robots (or associated with them), they could serve as intelligent sensors for optimal health monitoring or even order the repair of tissues or organs from the inside to avoid an operation. But it will probably take a few more decades before we see concrete applications. Until then, it is not forbidden to dream…

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Science fiction or reality: what if biological computers were the future of computing?


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