Ned Seeman looked dressed for a hiking trip. While Seeman talked about assembling a computer with DNA, my eyes focused on the random bits of DNA structures collecting dust in his New York University lab.
The structures were sentimental to him. Each one represented monumental moments in his life. The artistic 3D representations of the structures were a collection of all of the important DNA creations Seeman brought into this world. The only thing missing was a biological machine entirely made of DNA, but that's certainly on Seeman's agenda.
After telling me his entire life story of using DNA to create structures, Seeman took me to see where the synthetic DNA is made.
I was underwhelmed. Nothing magical was happening: It was a boring small machine that mixed the base pairs of DNA together. But it held great potential: The DNA machine could create any structure he wanted to.
That's why DNA might soon replace silicon as the perfect computing material. DNA can build itself up from scratch and become anything it wants and self assemble. We can only shrink silicon so much.
So if computer chips were made of DNA, the cost of producing the biological circuits would be much cheaper. The idea is more science fiction than a reality at this point.
He's come a long way since he started in 1991, when he created a complex molecular cube made of two long and eight short pieces of DNA. In 1999, he created a nanomechanical device that moved its arms when chemicals were added.
Recently, Seeman made a small device that “walked” across a DNA “sidewalk.”
Elsewhere, Duke University engineers have figured out a way to use DNA to create logic circuits. Chris Dyer, an electrical and computer engineering professor at the college, said in a statement:
"This is the first demonstration of such an active and rapid processing and sensing capacity at the molecular level," Dwyer said. The results of his experiments were published online in the journal Small. "Conventional technology has reached its physical limits. The ability to cheaply produce virtually unlimited supplies of these tiny circuits seems to me to be the next logical step."
By mixing DNA with other molecules, Dwyer hopes to make billions of waffle structures this way. As it turns out, the "other" molecules is a special light sensitive material — so only light is needed to program the biological circuit. When light hits the light sensitive material, it creates switches (or logic gates).
Dwyer basically says it's like making a jigsaw puzzle. "What we did was to take billions of these puzzle pieces, throwing them together, to form billions of copies of the same puzzle," he adds. The puzzle isn't quite at a billion yet, as Dwyer's puzzle set only contains 16 pieces.
Besides becoming the core of our computers, DNA based logic chips could potentially be the heart of sensors. For instance, the sensors could detect biomarkers in our blood and flag any signs of disease.
But many initial efforts are focused on creating a DNA computer. As I've written in a previous story, IBM researchers are working with DNA's self replicating power to create better computer chips. In Media Post, I wrote:
"Biology is the ultimate manufacturing technology," says MIT computer scientist Tom Knight. If we could replicate devices cheaply, it would change the world, he believes. Biology is reliable and robust. "If you take a laptop and open it up and cut a wire, it will not work anymore. If a person is pricked with a pin, they will not fall over dead. They go on living."
Inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil once said, "Our computers aren't going to be these distinct rectangular devices we carry around. We are going to merge with them." I second that.
Image: Chris Dwyer