Monday, April 21, 2014

Keeping Tabs on DNA Biocomputing Systems

Have you heard of DNA computing, biocomputers, or biomolecular computers before? I've been keeping an eye on progress in this field for almost 20 years. It may finally be time for you to do the same.

Simply put, Biocomputers are an evolving form of computing solutions that use DNA, biochemistry and molecular biology, instead of the traditional silicon-based computer technologies.

The promising field of biomolecular computer research utilizes the science behind nano-sized biomaterials to create various forms of computational devices, which may have many future applications in healthcare.

Biocomputers are still in the research and development stage and have quite a way to go before a range of viable commercial products will emerge. However, DNA computing, or biomolecular computing, has now become a fast developing interdisciplinary area.

Brief Timeline

Back in the late 1990's, the first articles began to appear about  scientists and researchers who were working on biocomputer systems of the future.

  • The first proof-of-concept using DNA to perform computation was carried out by Professor Leonard Adleman at the University of Southern California in 1994.
  • In 1997, researchers at the University of Rochester developed DNA Logic Gates.
  • In March 2002, NASA Jet Propulsion Lab issued a press release on “Using 'Nature's Toolbox, a DNA Computer Solves a Complex Problem”. It stated that a DNA-based computer had solved a logic problem that no person could complete by hand.
  • In February 2003, National Geographic News published an article on “Computers Made from DNA and Enzymes”, reporting that Israeli scientists had devised a biocomputer that can perform 330 trillion operations per second, more than 100,000 times the speed of the fastest PC.
  • In April 2004, an article in Science Daily entitled “Biological Computer Diagnoses Cancer and Produces the Drug” stated that a biomolecular computer had been developed that diagnosed in vitro a form of cancer - and then performed an appropriate medical intervention by producing a biologically active molecule with anti-cancer activity.
  • HPC Wire reported in March 2005 that a new version of a biomolecular computer developed at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, composed entirely of DNA molecules and enzymes, could perform as many as a billion different programs simultaneously.
  • In August 2006, CNN Technology reported that scientists at Columbia University and the University of New Mexico had produced a biocomputer system called MAYA-II. The system had a molecular array of YES and AND logic gates made up of 100 DNA circuits.
  • In a May 2007, a Medical News Today article entitled “Scientists Develop Tiny Implantable Biocomputers” reported that researchers at Harvard University and Princeton University had made a crucial step toward building biological computers - tiny implantable devices that can monitor the activities and characteristics of human cells.
  • In 2010, an article in New Scientist reported that DNA-based logic gates which could carry out calculations inside the body had been constructed for the first time. The work finally brought the prospect of injectable biocomputers programmed to target specific diseases into reality.
  • In 2011, the 17th International Conference on DNA Computing and Molecular Programming was held at  the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena, California.
  • 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 speech "I Have a Dream" on DNA digital data storage.
  • In March 2013, a team of bioengineers from Stanford University, led by Drew Endy, announced that had created the biological equivalent of a transistor, which they dubbed a "transcriptor". The invention was the final of the three key components necessary to build a fully functional biocomputer.
  • In May 2013, Israeli scientists at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology created an advanced biological transducer. The machine can manipulate genetic codes, and use the output as new input for subsequent computations.
  • In May 2013, Ehud Keinan of the Technion Schulich Faculty of Chemistry in Israel in cooperation with the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California, designed a novel, synthetic molecular computing device that computes iteratively and produces biologically significant results.  See
  • In 2014, it was reported that a team of researchers at Bar-Ilan University in Israel had successfully demonstrated an ability to use strands of DNA to create a nanobot computer inside of a living creature—a cockroach.  See


Biocomputers utilizing nanobiotechnology may one day become the most energy efficient, most powerful, and most economical of any commercially available computer. DNA computers the size of a teardrop have the potential to be more powerful than today's most powerful supercomputer.   See

Other economic benefit of biocomputers lie in the potential of all biologically derived systems to one day self-replicate and self-assemble given appropriate conditions.

Just as important, biomolecular computing devices could be crucial to developing computers that can interact directly with biological systems and even living organisms. This will have a tremendous potential impact on healthcare in the future.

Biocomputers in Healthcare
  • Biocomputers could be used to deliver enzymes that break down cells via programmable nanoparticles, or to delivering insulin to tell cells to grow and regenerate tissue at the desired location.
  • Surgery would be performed by putting the programmable nanoparticles into saline and injecting them into the body to seek out remove bad cells and grow new cells and perform other medical work

Unlike silicon chips, DNA-based computers can be made small enough to operate inside cells and control their activity. “If you can programme events at a molecular level in cells, you can cure or kill cells which are sick or in trouble and leave the other ones intact. You cannot do this with electronics,” says Luca Cardelli of Microsoft's research centre in the U.K.   See


Biocomputers are at the ‘bleeding edge’ of health information and/or computer technology. Products of this emerging field are still probably 10-15 years away from entering the commercial marketplace.

At this point, Chief Information Officers (CIO) of healthcare organizations should start to monitor progress of this technology annually, keeping in mind that this technology has tremendous potential down the road.

Use of open source software and providing open access to key information could help speed up the research and development of biocomputer technology. 

Selected Resources & Links

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