A supercomputer that runs on biological processes, much like the ones that allow all living cells to thrive, has been built by researchers at McGill University, reports Tech Times. Electronic computers are still not able to handle really large problems, and can’t handle more than one problem at a time. This new and potentially revolutionary biological supercomputer, powered by adenosine triphosphate protein strings, can solve complex mathematical problems while it uses very little energy.
“For a bigger problem we have to make a larger computer,” Dan Nicolau, chair of the department of bioengineering at McGill, told CBC News. Dan began working on the idea with his son, Dan Nicolau Jr., over a decade ago, and they were later joined by colleagues from Germany, Sweden, and the Netherlands, a few years into their research. As it turns out, even though they were taking on something so incredibly complex, the two were not as skilled as one might assume.
“We are perfectly complementary,” Nicolau said of his son. “He knows very little about engineering… and I have not that much mathematical knowledge either.”
The core of this biocomputer/supercomputer model consists of a 1.5 square-centimetre microchip that uses myosin, molecular motors which execute mechanical tasks that are in living cells, in order to drive protein filaments down artificial paths. This isn’t the way more traditional computers work. They instead have electrons being fired through a chip, which is being triggered by an electrical charge.
But in the biological supercomputer, the short strings of proteins are activated by adenosine triphosphate, which is the chemical that allows the transfer of energy inside of the cells in our bodies. ATP is sometimes referred to as “molecular unit of currency.”
This research is applying parallel computing, and Nicolau and his team are not the first to take that and apply it to more complex problem-solving. DNA computing, which uses DNA, biochemistry, and molecular biology hardware, is handled in a similar fashion.
“A biocomputer requires less than one per cent of the energy an electronic transistor needs to carry out one calculation step,” according to the study’s co-ordinator Heiner Linke, director of nanoscience at Lund University in Sweden.
This supercomputer is run on biological agents, which means it rarely rises in temperature and overheats. It also doesn’t use as much energy as standard electronic supercomputers do, which it makes it more sustainable. More traditional supercomputers require a process for them to operate, having to be cooled down periodically so they don’t overheat. This is why they are built and operate inside their own power plants, this allows them to function.
Now, as previously stated, the Nicolau biological supercomputer is just a model and not the end goal they are intending to reach. There is a lot more work and research that is going to be required in order to take this beta-like biocomputer/supercomputer from a model to a full-size functional supercomputer.
“The fact that molecules are very cheap and that we have now shown the bio computer’s calculations work leads me to believe that biocomputers have the prerequisites for practical use within ten years. Certainly, quantum computers can be more powerful in the long term, but there are considerable practical problems involved in getting them to work”, said Heiner Linke.
This could potentially lead to bio supercomputers being smaller and more sustainable, which is certainly a possibility worth looking forward to.
“This would not have been possible without the enthusiasm and hard work of Prof. Linke, who is also co-corresponding author, and his group, Prof. Prof. Månsson and his group – both from Sweden, Prof. Diez and his group from Germany, and Dr. Van Delft from Philips, The Netherlands,” Dan Nicolau said.
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