How DNA Could Power Your Computer

It’s in the genes

Key Takeaways

  • A new discovery could use DNA to make computer chips. 
  • The research is the latest step in the growing field of DNA, which has stalled for decades but shows great promise. 
  • Computers based on DNA are useful because they are extremely energy efficient.
Scientists working in a laboratory.

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Computers that run on DNA may be getting closer to becoming practical devices. 

Researchers at a South Korean university recently found a way to create a DNA-based chip that a personal computer can control to perform calculations, according to a new research paper. The team used 3D printing to fabricate a chip, which can execute Boolean logic, one of the fundamental methods of computer programming. It’s the latest step in the growing field of DNA computing, which has stalled for decades but shows great promise. 

"Unlike digital computers, DNA computers potentially enhance and extend our capabilities to go beyond electronics in the future," Hieu Bui, a professor who studies DNA computing at The Catholic University of America and was not involved in the study, told Lifewire in an email interview.  

For example, Bui said, a DNA computer "may process biomarkers such as DNA or RNA sequences as input and produce useful bio-information (i.e., cell counts, blood types, etc.) as output."

DNA That Can Calculate

DNA is the double-stranded helix that contains all our genetic information. The individual units of DNA have pairs of molecules that can be used to perform calculations for DNA computing.

In their new paper, scientists at Incheon National University in Korea say they have found a programmable DNA-based microfluidic chip that a personal computer can control. The chip has a motor-operated valve system that can be operated using a PC or smartphone. 

"Our hope is that DNA-based CPUs will replace electronic CPUs in the future because they consume less power, which will help with global warming," Youngjun Song, who led the study, said in a news release. "DNA-based CPUs also provide a platform for complex calculations like deep learning solutions and mathematical modeling." 

Bui called the new paper from Incheon "a promising sign for the technology that has evolved since the early 1980s."

Computers based on DNA are useful because they are extremely energy efficient, even when processing massive amounts of data because they rely on biological processes rather than electricity, data strategist Nick Heudecker told Lifewire in an email interview. 

"DNA computers are also resilient when compared to traditional computing architectures," he said. "Regardless of its successes, traditional computing is fragile. Vigilant management of conditions, environments, and inputs is required to achieve any form of success."

"Our hope is that DNA-based CPUs will replace electronic CPUs in the future because they consume less power, which will help with global warming."

Because it’s a biological system, DNA is capable of error checking and self-repair, making it an ideal data storage and computing platform, Heudecker said. 

"This inherent resiliency, coupled with its storage density, puts DNA computing in a unique position relative to other computing options, like quantum computing," he added. 

Turning DNA Into Machines

Many companies are trying to use DNA technology to make useful computers, Heudecker said. 

The startup CATALOG, for example, claims to have a unique method to encoding data as DNA that uses a lower-cost approach. The company claims it has successfully encoded all the text of English Wikipedia into synthetic DNA.

Helixworks makes a DNA-based tagging mechanism that can identify physical items and prove their provenance, Heudecker said. The product, HelixID, allows manufacturers to embed detailed product information into a DNA strand, like serial number, lot or batch numbers, and expiration dates directly into things like food and beverages, pharmaceuticals, and textiles, apparel, and luxury goods.

A scientist sequencing DNA on a laptop computer.

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Some DNA technology is still in the early research phase. Micron Technology is working on DNA data storage as a new form of memory, called Nucleic Acid Memory (NAM). Microsoft is partnering with the University of Washington and has demonstrated DNA data storage and retrieval.

But practical DNA computers are still probably about ten years away from hitting store shelves, Heudecker said. 

"Current DNA sequencing and synthesis technologies are too expensive and slow to compete with traditional computing infrastructure," he said.

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