It’s In The Genes

DNA technology could change the way we compute

out its complementary strand, which possesses the balance information.

If all this sounds like science fiction, just remember a few decades ago it seemed impossible for a chip made of silicon — ones we use in computers today — to quickly and accurately spell check a document or enable you to play solitaire on your PC. Another potential benefit of DNA computing is performing calculations in parallel vs. taking on one task at a time, as most computers today do. With many DNA molecules in a test tube or on a chip, you’re doing many computations simultaneously. “If you’re using a milligram of DNA, you’re processing, all at the same time, 10 to the 17th power independent bytes of data,” says David Harlan Wood, a research professor at the University of Delaware. That’s in comparison to some of today’s conventional parallel computers that do tens, hundreds, or maybe thousands of computations in parallel, he says.

Despite the current research, it’s unlikely that the technology will make its way to the average American household. For now, the main issue is where is DNA computing most suitable. One thing for sure is you can bet these “wetware,” or biological systems, won’t be available in your local Best Buy or Circuit City anytime soon — if ever. Some experts believe home-based DNA computers are possible but for now think they’ll be better suited in corporate or government settings, solving voluminous calculations, cracking secret codes, or helping the government with its current war on terrorism. “You might be happy if you can go to Circuit City and purchase something that would have thousands of CDs worth of music, but would it be worth it to you to buy something with the equivalent of millions or trillions of CDs?” asks Wood. Probably not.

It’s also likely that DNA computers will be better at human-related tasks. “Perhaps DNA computers will be better at problems at which humans are better,” says Kari. “Electronic computers are better than humans at adding, and they will always be. But if you want to talk about face recognition, humans are much better than the best software program. Maybe there will be a niche for some kind of specialized problem for which DNA computing might be better.”

Whether the average Joe will someday get his hands on a DNA-powered PC of some kind is debatable. Not many people thought the PCs we use today would be so pervasive, considering their precursor was the simple calculator, a device developed from vacuum tubes and used to measure the trajectory of artillery shells during World War II. But even as DNA technology gains its legs, many in the industry don’t seem to be worried about it replacing the silicon chip. “The use of silicon is going to carry us for the foreseeable future,” asserts Drew Prairie, a spokesperson for Sunnyvale, California-based AMD, the industry’s second-largest chip supplier for PCs. “DNA computing and other ideas are far down the road; we still have plenty of life left

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