When you look at the origin of the word computer—“one who calculates”—you learn electronics aren’t necessarily a required component even though most of us would imagine the modern-day desktop or laptop when we hear the term. A computer is something that can handle data, and in this perspective, our brains are one of the most powerful computers that exist. There has been significant progress toward the creation of biological computers. Once they get perfected, it will change our world.
What are biological computers?
Biological computers are made from living cells. Instead of electrical wiring and signaling, biological computers use chemical inputs and other biologically derived molecules such as proteins and DNA. Just like a desktop computer, these organic computers can respond to data and process it, albeit in a rudimentary manner similar to the capabilities of computers circa 1920. While biological computers have a long way to go before they are as sophisticated as today’s personal computers, the fact that researchers have been able to get biological computers to complete a logic gate is a notable achievement.
Potential of biological computers
Once you’ve programmed a single biological cell, it’s extremely cost-effective to grow billions more with only the cost of the nutrient solutions and a lab tech’s time. It’s also anticipated that biocomputers might actually be more reliable than their electronic counterparts. To illustrate, think about how our bodies still survive even though millions of our cells die off, but a computer built from wires can stop functioning if one wire is severed. In addition, every cell has a mini-factory at its disposal, so once it’s been programmed, it can synthesize any biological chemical.
Instead of what’s done today when bioengineers map genes and try to uncover their secrets, they can just program cells to do the job they need them to do — for example, program cells to fight cancer or deliver insulin to a diabetic’s bloodstream.
Challenges of biocomputing
Although biocomputing has similarities with biology and computer science, it doesn’t fit seamlessly with either one. In biology, the goal is to reverse engineer things that have already been built. Biocomputing aims to forward engineer biology.
Experts in computer science are accustomed to machines executing programmed commands; when dealing with biological environments in what is known as a “wet lab,” organisms might react unpredictably. The culprit could be the cell’s programming, or it could easily be something external such as the environmental conditions, nutrition, or timing.
Biological computing in use today
While biological computers aren’t as prolific as personal computers, there are several companies working to advance this very young field.
The founders of Synthego, a Silicon Valley startup, aren’t biologists. They are brothers and software engineers who used to work for SpaceX building rockets but thought there was potential in taking what they knew about agile design to gene-editing tools. The company creates customized CRISPR kits for scientists from a selection of approximately 5,000 organisms available in Synthego’s genome library. Ultimately, this can cut down the time it takes for scientists to do gene edits.
Microsoft’s foray into biological computing is called Station B. The company partnered with Princeton University and two UK companies, Oxford BioMedica and Synthace, on the new research system that can analyze volumes of biomedical data with a set of integrated computer programs. This analysis is then used to guide scientists on the best way to proceed with research, such as editing DNA in a certain way. The hope is that this system will ultimately lower the cost of gene-therapy products to bring them to many more patients.
Using CRISPR (DNA sequences found within e.g. bacteria), scientists were able to turn a cell into a biological computer. It was programmed to take in specific genetic codes and perform computations that would produce a particular protein. This milestone could eventually lead to having powerful computers in cells that could eventually detect and treat diseases. Imagine in the future that these cells could be programmed to scan for biomarkers that indicate the presence of disease. If all criteria are met, these same cells could mass-produce proteins that could help treat the disease. A microtissue might have billions of cells, all with their own “dual-core processor.” The computing power this would allow is on par with today’s digital supercomputer.
The work in biocomputing thus far has focused on DNA-based systems because, at this point, genetic engineering is understood enough (even if all of its secrets aren’t known) to make progress possible. There are many more biological systems to tackle, such as those based on nerve cells. The future is expected to include using the knowledge gleaned from developing biocomputers for DNA-based systems and apply it to neurochemistry.