Sunday, May 25, 2008

Bacterial Computers

Ubiwar leads us to this fascinating and somewhat disturbing article on bacteria engineered to do basic computing problems.

Scientists have built the first living computer and tasked it with solving an important problem: flipping pancakes.

Researchers genetically engineered the bacterium E. coli to coax its DNA into computing a classic mathematical puzzle known as the burned pancake problem. Molecules of DNA have the natural ability to store and process information, and scientists have been performing computations with bare DNA molecules in lab dishes since the mid-1990s. But the new research, reported online in the Journal of Biological Engineering, is the first to do DNA computation in living cells.

“Imagine having the parallel processing power of a million computers all in the space of a drop of water,” says Karmella Haynes, a biologist at Davidson College in North Carolina. “It’s possible to do that because cells are so tiny and DNA is so tiny.”

While the potential computational power of programmed bacteria is immense, the DNA-computation system that Haynes and her colleagues designed can only solve problems by flipping and sorting data. It doesn’t have the open-ended computing flexibility of a laptop computer or even a solar-powered calculator, so the bacteria can only handle a limited set of mathematical problems. “We’re not going to have bacteria running iPods just yet,” Haynes says.

Now, re-listen to Computer World.


MT said...

So was? This seems like a pure novelty item to me--like keeping seventeen plates spinning in the air at the same time. It doesn't foreshadow a future where we're all spinning plates as we unicycle to work in the future.

helmut said...

Was? Eh?

Maybe it is a novelty item, but it's an awesomely cool one. I mean, can you imagine having pancakes every morning without doing any work?