Could protein-powered ‘biocomputers’ be the future of IT?

Standard electronic computers are extremely powerful at performing a high number of operations at very high speeds. But the most powerful supercomputer today takes up a lot of energy and space.

Not only that but they are increasingly costly to make. Although the computer chip is made from the most abundant elements on earth, the materials have to first be refined through a process that is eleborate, expensive and polluting.

Moore's Law, proposed by Intel co-founder Gordon Moore in 1965, states that the number of transistors able to be fit on computer chips will double every 18 months, exponentially increasing their power. So far this has proven to be correct, with smaller and smaller chips being created. But now scientists predict that this law will break down at a certain point as chip producers are forced to cram more and more of these transistors into a single chip.

The ultimate limit set by the world of thermodynamics says that the heat generated by such tiny chips will be far too great. Eventually, we will have to find realistic alternatives to current limited silicon technology – something researchers have been racing to solve.

Quantum computers have been proposed that could theoretically make use of the strange properties of quantum mechanics to crunch numbers faster than anything on earth while taking up a tiny fraction of the space.

> See also: How quantum computing will be a goldmine for the financial world

And now a team of international scientists from Canada, the UK, Germany, the Netherlands and Sweden have come up with radical a new model supercomputer that is made from organic, living material. 

Back in 2013, a team of bionengineers from Stanford University announced that they had created the biological equivalent of a transistor, completing the invention of the three components necessary to build a fully functional computer from living material: data storage, information transmission and a system of logic.

Now scientists have built a working model of a whole computer.

Like a quantum computer, the computer can work in parallel to perform multiple tasks simultaneously, vastly increasing its power and energy efficiency. In fact, a 'biocomputer' could fit into a chassis the size of a book, leaving room-sized elite supercomputers like China's Tianhe-2 in the dust, while using materials that already exist in nature and emit no excess heat.

The 'biocomputer' uses a similar strategy to that of quantum computers, using qubits – or the quantum computing equivalent to bits. But the qubits are replaced with short strings of living proteins, as well as molecular motors called myosin which are used in living things to carry out mechanical tasks in living cells, to move the protein filaments along artificial paths.

In traditional computers, these protein strings are instead replaced by electrons, which are propelled around the microchip by an electrical charge.

'In simple terms,' said Heiner Linke, coordinator of the study, in a statement'it involves the building of a labyrinth of nano-based channels that have specific traffic regulations for protein filaments. The solution in the labyrinth corresponds to the answer of a mathematical question, and many molecules can find their way through the labyrinth at the same time.'

One big advantage is that molecular motors are very energy efficient, with a biocomputer requiring less than 1% of the energy an electronic transistor needs to carry out one calculation step.

> See also: Inside the University of Oxford' facility for high performance computing

'The fact that molecules are very cheap and that we have now shown the biocomputer’s calculations work leads me to believe that biocomputers have the prerequisites for practical use within ten years,' added Linke. 'Certainly, quantum computers can be more powerful in the long term, but there are considerable practical problems involved in getting them to work.'

Now that this model exists as a way of successfully dealing with a single problem, the team say are going to be many others who will follow up and try to push it further, using different biological agents such as DNA and enzymes, or other biologically-derived molecules.

So can we expect our laptops to be powered like an organic lifeform anytime soon? As the scientists explain, it’s hard to say how soon it will be before we see a full scale bio-supercomputer. A beginning step could be to combine the device they have created with a conventional electronic computers to form a 'hybrid' device.

But for now it's exciting enough to think that we could potentially beat Moore's Law not by manifacturing new sillicon, but by harnessing the tools evolution has already given us.

The scientists have published a video, below, of what a protein-based biocomputer looks like in real-time:

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Ben Rossi

Ben was Vitesse Media's editorial director, leading content creation and editorial strategy across all Vitesse products, including its market-leading B2B and consumer magazines, websites, research and...

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