Using nanotechnology, proteins and a chemical that powers cells in everything from trees to people, researchers have built a biological supercomputer.
The supercomputer, which is the size of a book, uses much less energy, so it runs cooler and more efficiently, according to scientists at McGill University, where the lead researchers on the project work.
"We've managed to create a very complex network in a very small area," said Dan Nicolau Sr., chairman of the Department of Bioengineering at McGill. "This started as a back-of-an-envelope idea, after too much rum I think, with drawings of what looked like small worms exploring mazes."
Nicolau has been working on the research for more than 10 years with his son Dan Nicolau Jr.; they have been joined by scientists from Germany, Sweden and The Netherlands.
This research advances work on biological computers that has been going on for years.
Last May, scientists at UC Santa Barbara reported that they were working on a circuit designed to mimic the human brain running approximately 100 artificial synapses.
However, while that mimics a living brain, it did not use biological components.
Nearly a decade ago, scientists predicted that within 15 years hybrid computers would be operating with a combination of technology and living organic material.
Now, researchers are taking the work a step further.
"It's exciting in that this was a real long shot to begin with, almost science fiction," said Patrick Moorhead, an analyst with Moor Insights & Strategy. "We don't necessarily need this as long as something like quantum computing comes through, but it's important to have many irons in the fire. With many options, one should pull through."
The biological computer is designed to process data quickly and accurately using parallel networks, much like traditional electronics supercomputers do. The biocomputer uses a chip that is 1.5 centimeters square with etched channels that carry short strings of proteins instead of the usual electrons. The proteins' movements are driven by adenosine triphosphate, a chemical that enables energy transfer between cells.
McGill scientists call adenosine triphosphates the "juice of life."
While the effort shows that the bio-supercomputer can handle complex classical mathematical problems by using parallel computing, researchers say there is "a lot of work ahead" to make it 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," said Nicolau. "It's hard to say how soon it will be before we see a full-scale bio-supercomputer."
He added that to enable the bio-computer to take on more complex problems, one solution might be to combine the bio-machine with a conventional computer to create a hybrid device.
"Right now we're working on a variety of ways to push the research further," said Nicolau.
Zeus Kerravala, an anayst with ZK Research, called the work a "big step forward" in the goal of creating useful bio-supercomputers. "The goal here is to tackle some of the big issues in society," he added. "A biological computer would run the calculations differently and potentially give us a different way to get at some big answers."
Moorhead called the work a "breakthrough."
"Just the fact that it can do math is a step forward," he said.