New ‘magical’ super-fast computer concept uses DNA molecules to grow

1 Mar 2017

DNA melding with technology. Image: Sergey Nivens/Shutterstock

A melding of biology and computer science is underway at the University of Manchester as researchers demonstrate a new super-fast computer that uses DNA molecules to ‘grow’.

DNA might be known as the code that determines the traits of all living things, but in recent years it has rapidly become a tool for use within the artificial, technological world.

Of particular interest has been DNA’s potential to store vast amounts of information that has already led to start-ups being formed to offer data storage that would not only be invisible to the naked eye, but nearly indestructible.

Now, researchers from the University of Manchester believe DNA molecules could be harnessed for computing to such an extent that it would surpass the possibilities of even quantum computers.

Known as the nondeterministic universal Turing machine (NUTM) – after the legendary mathematician Alan Turing – such a working computer would be on another plane of speed surpassing both electronic and quantum computers.

In explaining how it works, lead researcher Prof Ross King gives the image of a computer searching a maze with two different routes. An electronic or quantum computer would need to spend time – even if it is just a fraction of a second – to decide which route to take. However, an NUTM can replicate itself and follow both paths at the same time to find the answer much faster.

Rather than using a series of ones and zeroes, an NUTM would use the genetic alphabet of A, G, C and T. This, the researchers said, gives it something of a ‘magical’ property.

Power on an unprecedented scale

“Our computer’s ability to grow as it computes makes it faster than any other form of computer, and enables the solution of many computational problems previously considered impossible,” Prof King said.

“Quantum computers are an exciting other form of computer, and they can also follow both paths in a maze, but only if the maze has certain symmetries, which greatly limits their use.”

To put further perspective on the potential for an NUTM computer, the University of Manchester team said that a small desktop NUTM could potentially utilise more processors than all the electronic computers in the world combined.

The team’s research has now been published in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic