March 03, 2016
In what appears at first to be a storyline ripped from a sci-fi thriller, a multi-national research team spread across two continents, four countries, and ten years in the making have created a model of a supercomputer that runs on the same substance that living things use as an energy source.
Humans and virtually all living things rely on Adenosine triphosphate (ATP) to provide the energy our cells need to perform daily functions. The biological computer created by the team led by Professor Dan Nicolau, Chair of the Department of Bioengineering at McGill, also relies on ATP for power.
The biological computer is able to process information very quickly and operates accurately using parallel networks like contemporary massive electronic super computers. In addition, the model is lot smaller in size, uses relatively less energy, and functions using proteins that are present in all living cells.
The architecture of the model bio-supercomputer is analogous to that of an organized and busy city. In a city, automobiles of different sizes powered by motors of different configurations navigate through roads. Comparatively, in the model bio-computer, short strings of proteins zip around the circuit in an ordered fashion, with their movement powered by ATP through channels that are etched during manufacture.
The chip of the model is a square of 1.5 cm and unlike electronic supercomputers hardly heats up. That can lead to biological supercomputers that are about the size of a normal book. This is an important leap as traditional supercomputers are mammoth consumers of electricity/power and space. The contemporary supercomputers use electricity to propel the electrons in their microchips, which leads to the buildup of high amount of heat. The device then needs electricity again for cooling.
The model bio-supercomputer was able to tackle a complex classical mathematical problem very efficiently using the kind of parallel computer employed by supercomputers.
In the near future, the team will explore variety of ways to push the research further and have already identified areas where advances are possible, for example, the use of a different biological agent or the construction of a hybrid computer that combines the bio-computer model and a conventional electronic computer prior to the production of a full-scale bio super-computer.