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Category:
Science and Technology
Domain:
Keywords:
Nanotechnology - computing, biology, genetic engineering, DNA computing, nanomolecular computing
Outlook:
The first practical biochemical nanocomputing devices are probably a decade or more away, but their development is being fueled by massive investment in research in the genomic sciences and nanotechnologies.
Summary Analysis:
Biochemical nanocomputing, also known as nanomolecular or DNA computing, is the use of biological molecules as computational devices. Scientists first find a way to translate the components of a computational problem into DNA-like strings, which are then mixed in a test tube. The nucleotide matching properties guide the association of these strings into DNA strands, which provide the solution to the particular problem. Because it takes advantage of the many different molecules in DNA to try many different possibilities at once, DNA computers could offer highly parallel processing and use very little energy in the process. Also, since DNA associates into double helixes very rapidly, the "computation" time takes only seconds, but finding the desired answer (represented by a particular strand) in a test tube of thousands of other strands might require days of lab work.

DNA computing is however still in its very early stages – while the most advanced DNA computer is almost unbeatable at noughts and crosses, it still requires human intervention to separate the correct answer out and is not reusable. It is unlikely to ever provide general purpose computing such as word processing.

Eventually however a nanomolecular or DNA computer could be a cheap and powerful massively parallel problem-solving machine potentially capable of combinatorial optimization, molecular nanomemory with fast associative searching. Further research in biocomputing is likely to be most profound in the life sciences, medicine, health care, and agriculture.

Implications:

  • Almost unimaginable improvements in computing speed and power
  • Development of an entirely new biocomputer industry
  • Vast potential to develop new medicines and life-forms, improving the treatment of disease and the growth of crops

Early Indicators:

  • Creation by Israeli scientists of an experimental DNA computer that can perform 330 trillion operations per second, more than 100,000 times the speed of the fastest PC
  • Demonstration in 2002 by researchers from the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel, of a programmable molecular computing machine composed of enzymes and DNA molecules instead of silicon microchips
  • Demonstration in 2003 by the same team of a new device, where the single DNA molecule that provides the computer with the input data also provides all the necessary fuel

What to Watch:

  • Demonstrations of biochemical nanocomputing successes at research laboratories worldwide are increasingly in the news.

Parallels/Precedents:
Enablers/drivers:

  • Massive research to fulfill the demands and applications of genomic sciences and nanotechnologies
  • Continued research and breakthroughs in the parallel fields of nanoelectronics and molecular biology
  • Improvement in the ease of use of software development programs for massively parallel and threaded applications
  • The economic challenges of global health care and food production, coupled with a continuously growing demand for computing power
  • Continued funding by governments, universities, and commercial enterprises of research leading toward biological and molecular computing devices

Leaders:
Regions:

  • UK, US, Europe, Israel, Japan, China

Institutions:

  • Weizmann Institute of Science (Ehud Shapiro) [link]
  • Princeton
  • University of Southern California (Leonard Adleman)
  • New York University (Nadrian C. Seeman)
  • Cal Tech [link]
  • Cranfield University [link]
  • University of Southampton [link]
  • University of Liverpool [link]
  • University of Cambridge [link]
  • UCLA [link]
  • University of Delaware [link]
  • Max Planck Institute for Biochemistry [link]
  • Institute of Neuroinformatics, Switzerland [link]

Figures:
Sources:

  • "Molecular Computing: An Overview." Byoung-Tak Zhang, Biointelligence Laboratory, School of Computer Science and Engineering, Seoul National University. 13 Mar 2002 [link]
  • Lovgren, Stefan. "Computer Made from DNA and Enzymes." National Geographic News. 24 Feb 2003 [link]
  • "Tiny computing machine fueled by DNA" [link]
  • "The Future of Computing" [link] by Alex Chediak, Karen Scott, Peng Zhang. University of California, Berkeley 2002.
  • RSA Laboratories, What is DNA Computing? (No date given) [link]
  • Petra Düx and Klaas J. Hellingwerf, Photoreceptor Proteins: Smart Materials for the Electronics of the Next Millennium, EU Joint Research Centre, Seville [link]
  • Byoung-Tak Zhang (Seoul National University), Molecular Computing: An Overview, 2002 [link]
  • Mitre Corporation Nanocomputer pages [link]


At A Glance:
When:
21–50 years +
Where:
Global
How Fast:
Years
Likelihood:
Medium-High
Impact:
Medium-Low
Controversy:
Low


Related Outlooks:

About this outlook: An outlook is an internally consistent, plausible view of the future based on the best expertise available. It is not a prediction of the future. The AT-A-GLANCE ratings suggest the scope, scale, and uncertainty associated with this outlook. Each outlook is also a working document, with contributors adding comments and edits to improve the forecast over time. Please see the revision history for earlier



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