Live Wires—Living Computers!

Paula LaBrot

It is spring in Topanga! All around us, DNA codes are programming the beautiful, living designs we hold so dear to bloom and grow. We bring out our copies of Santa Monica Mountains flora and fauna books. We relish meeting up with well-known flower friends and discovering new varieties of plants and animals, especially interesting after the long drought.  

Mike Hodgkinson, a writer for The Guardian, sums us up splendidly: “Far enough from the suburbs to be considered wild, and sufficiently bedeviled by flood, fire and rattlesnakes to deter the half-hearted, Topanga has traditionally cast itself as L.A.’s preferred utopian outpost: the city’s own rustic, occasionally treacherous, Shangri-la.”

Our treasured, natural world is constantly evolving, adapting its forms to new environmental conditions. Same in the cyber world! At its newest, most fascinating frontier, life has come to computers …Bio-Computers!  Yes, “living computers” are here.

A Little History—Computation has been part of man’s evolution since the cave days, when people counted on their fingers and toes. The oldest known objects to store numeric information were bones with notches carved into them. The modern computer had its beginning in the 19th century when Charles Babbage designed the Analytical Engine, the basic framework of today’s computers.   

There are three generations of modern computers. The first were powered by vacuum tubes, the second were transistor-based, and the integrated circuit brought the third generation, from which came smaller, more powerful computers that could run multiple programs at the same time.

And Now…—The next generation computers are quantum computers, meant to harness the power of atoms and molecules to perform memory and processing tasks, significantly faster and smaller than any silicon-based computer. Running parallel to the Quantum Computer development is the Bio-Computer technology, that uses the basic building blocks of life to store and process data.

Putting DNA to work—In 1999, W.L. Ditto created a Bio-Computer composed of leech neurons at Georgia Tech that was capable of performing simple addition. In 2002, researchers from the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel unveiled a programmable molecular computer machine composed of enzymes and DNA molecules instead of silicon chips. In 2004, the Institute published they had constructed a DNA computer with an input and output module that would theoretically be capable of diagnosing cancerous activity in a cell and releasing an anti-cancer drug following diagnosis.  

In January 2013, researchers were able to store a jpeg photograph, a set of Shakespearean sonnets and an audio file of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech on DNA digital data storage. How powerful is DNA storage? DNA data storage is so powerful that all the data in one of those vast, Utah mega-facilities could be stored in something the size of a shoebox.

…And BeyondIn March, 2013, a team of bio-engineers from Stanford University announced they had created the biological equivalent of a transistor and called it a “transcriptor.” It was the final component needed to create a fully functional bio-computer. These systems are completely biological, no electricity, no silicon. Think about little transcriptors becoming tiny computers within our own cells! Think about the cellular manipulations that would be possible! Grow yourself a new kidney from undifferentiated stem cells, for example. Create data storage in your blood cells!

Software Engineer Robert Hall explained there is nothing magical about what is being done. “It’s brilliant, but it all comes down to manufacturing technique.”

Science writer Robert Carlson suggests that “biologic manufacturing has a huge, democratizing, open-source, green advantage: “It can take place anywhere someone wants to set up a vat or plant a seed. Once the scientific design of any given bio-PC component is refined, it is simply grown.”

As Hall points out, we humans are all created from uniform stem cells. DNA is the code that differentiates the cells. It instructs—like a software program—which cell will grow to be a kidney cell, another a brain cell, another a muscle cell and so on. So, control the code, control the output.

Inevitable Evolution—Environmental pressures at the cellular level are analogous to the environmental pressures we contemplate every day. We respond to changing conditions from pollution, drought, overpopulation or Zika, whatever. We adapt, we repair, we evolve.

Those tiny bio-computers can also learn and adapt as they replicate and rebuild themselves. They, too, evolve under pressure!  Into what? Time will tell.

So….peptides, do your work! Make us flowers, and then, store our thoughts about them!

Vamos a ver!


Paula LaBrot

Paula LaBrot is a 30-year resident of Topanga, a futurist with a special interest in the uncharted waters of cyberspace.

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