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Discovery opens door to creation of biological supercomputers


Montreal, QC – The substance that provides energy to all the cells in our bodies, adenosine triphosphate (ATP), may also be able to power the next generation of supercomputers.

An international team of researchers led by Prof. Nicolau, chair of the Department of Bioengineering at McGill University, recently published an article on the subject in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). In the article, they describe a model of a biological computer they have created that is able to process information very quickly and accurately using parallel networks in the same way as massive electronic super computers. The only difference is that the model bio-supercomputer is vastly smaller than current supercomputers, requires much less energy, and uses proteins present in all living cells to function.

 “We’ve managed to create a very complex network in a very small area,” said Dan Nicolau, Sr. with a laugh. He began working on the idea with his son, Dan Jr., more than a decade ago and was then joined by colleagues from Germany, Sweden and The Netherlands, some 7 years ago. “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.”

The model bio-supercomputer that the father and son team and their colleagues have created came about thanks to a combination of geometrical modelling and engineering knowhow (on the nano scale). It is a first step, in showing that this kind of biological supercomputer can actually work.

The circuit the researchers have created looks a bit like a road map of a busy and very organized city as seen from a plane. Just as in a city, cars and trucks of different sizes, powered by motors of different kinds, navigate through channels that have been created for them, consuming the fuel they need to keep moving. 

But in the case of the bio-supercomputer, the city is a chip measuring about 1.5 cm square in which channels have been etched. Instead of the electrons that are propelled by an electrical charge and move around within a traditional microchip, short strings of proteins (which the researchers call biological agents) travel around the circuit in a controlled way, their movements powered by ATP.

Because it is run by biological agents, and as a result hardly heats up at all, the model bio-supercomputer uses far less energy than standard electronic supercomputers, making it more sustainable. Traditional supercomputers use so much electricity and generate so much heat that they need to be cooled continuously, and often require their own power plant to function.

Although the model bio-supercomputer was able to tackle a complex classical mathematical problem very efficiently by using parallel computing of the kind used by supercomputers, the researchers recognize there is still a lot of work ahead to move from the model they have created to 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. One option for dealing with larger and more complex problems may be to combine our device with a conventional computer to form a hybrid device. Right now we’re working on a variety of ways to push the research further.”

View animated video explaining the computation principle and video showing the actin filaments exploring the {2, 5, 9} device.

This research was funded by: The European Union Seventh Framework Programme; Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency; NanoLund; The Miller Foundation; The Swedish Research Council; The Carl Trygger Foundation; the German Research Foundation; and by Linnaeus University.

Reported by Katherine Gombay, McGill University