utilize systems of biologically derived molecules, such as DNA
, to perform computational calculations
involving storing, retrieving, and processing data
The development of biocomputers has been made possible by the expanding new science of nanobiotechnology. The term nanobiotechnology can be defined in multiple ways; in a more general sense, nanobiotechnology can be defined as any type of technology that utilizes both nano-scale materials, i.e. materials having characteristic dimensions of 1-100 nanometers, as well as biologically based materials (34).4 A more restrictive definition views nanobiotechnology more specifically as the design and engineering of proteins that can then be assembled into larger, functional structures (116-117) (9).³,1
The implementation of nanobiotechnology, as defined in this narrower sense, provides scientists with the ability to engineer biomolecular systems specifically so that they interact in a fashion that can ultimately result in the computational functionality of a computer.
The promising field of biocomputer research utilizes the science behind nano-sized biomaterials to create various forms of computational devices, which may have many potential applications in the future. One day, biocomputers utilizing nanobiotechnology may become the cheapest, most energy-efficient, most powerful, and most economical of any commercially available computer. Already, scientists are making significant headway in the advancement of this science.
Biocomputers utilize biologically derived materials to perform computational functions. A biocomputer consists of a pathway or series of metabolic pathways involving biological materials that are engineered to behave in a certain manner based upon the conditions (input
) of the system. The resulting pathway of reactions that takes place constitutes an output
, which is based on the engineering design of the biocomputer and can be interpreted as a form of computational analysis. Three distinguishable types of biocomputers include biochemical computers, biomechanical computers, and bioelectronic computers (349-351).²
Biochemical computers use the immense variety of feedback loops that are characteristic of biological chemical reactions
in order to achieve computational functionality. Feedback loops in biological systems take many forms, and many different factors can provide both positive and negative feedback to a particular biochemical process, causing either an increase in chemical output or a decrease in chemical output, respectively. Such factors may include the quantity of catalytic enzymes present, the amount of reactants present, the amount of products present, and the presence of molecules that bind to and thus alter the chemical reactivity of any of the aforementioned factors. Given the nature of these biochemical systems to be regulated through many different mechanisms, one can engineer a chemical pathway comprising a set of molecular components that react to produce one particular product under one set of specific chemical conditions and another particular product under another set of conditions. The presence of the particular product that results from the pathway can serve as a signal, which can be interpreted, along with other chemical signals, as a computational output based upon the starting chemical conditions of the system, i.e. the input.
Biomechanical computers are similar to biochemical computers in that they both perform a specific output that can be interpreted as a functional computation based upon specific initial conditions which serve as input. They differ, however, in what exactly serves as the output signal. In biochemical computers, the presence or concentration of certain chemicals serves as the output signal. In biomechanical computers, however, the mechanical
shape of a specific molecule or set of molecules under a set of initial conditions serves as the output. Biomechanical computers rely on the nature of specific molecules to adopt certain physical configurations under certain chemical conditions. The mechanical, three-dimensional structure of the product of the biomechanical computer is detected and interpreted appropriately as a calculated output.
Biocomputers can also be constructed to perform electronic computing. Again, like both biomechanical and biochemical computers, computations are performed by interpreting a specific output that is based upon an initial set of conditions that serve as input. In bioelectronic computers, the measured output is the nature of the electrical conductivity
that is observed in the bioelectronic computer, which comprises specifically designed biomolecules that conduct electricity
in highly specific manners based upon the initial conditions that serve as the input of the bioelectronic system.
The behavior of biologically derived computational systems such as these relies on the particular molecules that make up the system, which are primarily proteins but may also include DNA molecules. Nanobiotechnology provides the means to synthesize the multiple chemical components necessary to create such a system. The chemical nature of a protein is dictated by its sequence of amino acids
—the chemical building blocks of proteins. This sequence is in turn dictated by a specific sequence of DNA nucleotides
—the building blocks of DNA molecules. Proteins are manufactured in biological systems through the translation of nucleotide
sequences by biological molecules called ribosomes
, which assemble individual amino acids into polypeptides that form functional proteins based on the nucleotide sequence that the ribosome interprets. What this ultimately means is that one can engineer a biocomputer, i.e. the chemical components necessary to serve as a biological system capable of performing computations, by engineering DNA nucleotide sequences to encode for the necessary protein components. Also, the synthetically designed DNA molecules themselves may function in a particular biocomputer system. Thus, implementing nanobiotechnology to design and produce synthetically designed proteins, as well as the design and synthesis of artificial DNA molecules, can allow the construction of functional biocomputers, e.g., Computational Genes
Economical Benefit of Biocomputers
A hallmark of all biological organisms and the chemical building blocks that comprise them is the ability to self-replicate and self-assemble into functional components; life could not be sustained if living organisms were not capable of replicating themselves. The economical
benefit of biocomputers lies in this potential of all biologically derived systems to self-replicate and self-assemble given appropriate conditions (349).² For instance, all of the necessary proteins for a certain biochemical pathway, which can be modified to serve as a biocomputer, can be synthesized many times over inside a biological cell from a single DNA molecule, which can itself be replicated many times over. This characteristic of biological molecules makes their production highly efficient and relatively inexpensive. Whereas non-biological computer components require extensive production processes, the components of biocomputers can be produced in large quantities from tandem processes occurring in a single, easily attainable, convenient source—the replicating machinery present within any biological cell.
Notable Advancements in Biocomputer Technology
Currently, biocomputers exist with various functional capabilities that include operations of logic
and mathematical calculations. T. Knight of the MIT Artificial Intelligence Laboratory first suggested a biochemical computing scheme in which protein concentrations are used as binary
signals that ultimately serve to perform logical operations (349).² At or above a certain concentration of a particular biochemical product in a biocomputer chemical pathway indicates a signal that is either a 1 or a 0, and a concentration below this level indicates the other, remaining signal. Using this method as computational analysis, biochemical computers can perform logical operations in which the appropriate binary output will occur only under specific, logical constraints on the initial conditions. In other words, the appropriate binary output serves as a logically derived conclusion from a set of initial conditions that serve as premises from which the logical conclusion can be made. In addition to these types of logical operations, biocomputers have also been shown to demonstrate other functional capabilities, such as mathematical computations. One such example was provided by W.L. Ditto, who in 1999 created a biocomputer composed of leech neurons at Georgia Tech which was capable of performing simple addition (351).² These are just a few of the notable uses that biocomputers have already been engineered to perform, and the capabilities of biocomputers are becoming increasingly sophisticated. Because of the availability and potential economic efficiency associated with producing biomolecules and biocomputers, as noted above, the advancement of the technology of biocomputers is a popular, rapidly growing subject of research that is likely to see much progress in the future.
Future Potential of Biocomputers
Many examples of simple biocomputers have been designed, but the capabilities of these biocomputers are still largely premature in comparison to commercially available non-bio computers. However, there is definitely great potential in the capabilities that biocomputers may one day acquire. Evidence of the true potential of the computing capabilities of biocomputers exists in the most powerful, complex computational machine known to currently exist: the biocomputer that is the human brain
. Certainly, there is plenty of room to improve in the realm of biocomputer computational ability; one may reasonably expect the science of biocomputers to advance greatly in the years to come.
1 Gary Stix. "Little Big Science." Understanding Nanotechnology (p6-16). Scientific American, Inc, and Byron Preiss Visual Publications, Inc: 2002.
2 Freitas, Robert A. Nanomedicine Volume I: Basic Capabilities. Austin, Texas: Landes Bioscience, 1999.
3 Ratner, Daniel and Mark. Nanotechnology: A Gentle Introduction to the Next Big Idea. Pearson Education, Inc: 2003.
4 Wispelway, June. "Nanobiotechnology: The Integration of Nanoengineering and Biotechnology to the Benefit of Both." Society for Biological Engineering (Special Section): Nanobiotechnology.