Researchers have built the first living computer by genetically engineering the bacterium E. coli to coax its DNA into computing a classic mathematical puzzle known as the burned pancake problem. The research is the first to achieve 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.”
The potential computational power of programmed bacteria is immense, the DNA-computation system that Haynes and her colleagues designed can only solve limited mathematical problems.
The burned pancake problem that the bacteria solve is a metaphor for an important problem in computer science — sorting large amounts of data into the right order by repeatedly flipping chunks of data. Knowing the minimum number of flips necessary will tell programmers when their software has been fully optimized to sort the data as quickly as possible.
The flipping is done by an enzyme taken from the salmonella bacterium. The enzyme could flips segments of E. coli’s DNA that are marked by genetic flags. The researchers designed these segments so that, when lined up in the correct order like pancakes stacked from biggest to smallest (burned side down, of course), the DNA spells out the code for a gene that gives the bacterium resistance to an antibiotic. That way, applying the antibiotic to the colony of engineered bacteria killed all of the bacteria that had not yet solved the puzzle. (Barry, 2008)
This news is very exciting. In my opinion, a new era is born. Will future programmers need to study genetic engineering too? Are we going to drag and drop bacteria cultures to solve our computational problems?
Patrick Barry (2008). I, Computer: Engineered Bacteria Become the First Living Computers. ScienceNews. Available at: http://www.sciencenews.org/view/generic/id/32352/title/I,_computer