Living Supercomputers Run Off Proteins and Cell Energy

Supercomputers aren't solving problems fast enough -- but biological supercomputers could change that.

Til Korten

If the novelty of actual living machines wasn’t exciting enough, the existence of biological supercomputers should raise eyebrows.

This biological computer was created by a team of international researchers associated with the ABACUS project, a European Union-funded initiative to create better supercomputers. In a recent edition of the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States, the researchers write that their creation is highly energy efficient and can rapidly process information. Perhaps most importantly, it can compute in parallel networks, which is how calculations are carried out simultaneously in a supercomputer.

The biological aspect of the computer comes from its use of adenosine triphosphate (ATP), the molecule of energy that exists in all living cells. Whereas a traditional computer chip has electrons that travel through it via an electronic charge, the chip within this computer uses ATP to power the movement of short strings of proteins. The researchers compare the chip’s circuit to that of a busy city grid — the cars are proteins and engines are ATP. Moving through the circuit is what creates the energy that lets everything work.

Actin filaments (white) move through the computer chip's network.

McGill University

Lead study author Dan Nicolau of McGill University came up with the idea for the biological computer by doodling mazes after “too much rum.” He sees the biologically-fueled 1.5-centimeter chip as the starting point for a new era of supercomputers, but acknowledges that it’s hard to say how soon humankind will have full biological supercomputers.

“Now that this model exists as a way of successfully dealing with a single problem, there are going to be many others who will follow up and try to push it further, using different biological agents, for example,” said Nicolau in a press release. “One option for dealing with larger and more complex problems may be to combine our device with a conventional computer to form a hybrid device. Right now we’re working on a variety of ways to push the research further.”

But that’s not to say that Nicolau’s “proof of concept” isn’t working like a supercomputer yet — so far it has proven to be capable of using parallel computations to solve complex math problems. It’s unclear what it will be capable of next.

The creation of this model comes at a time of urgency in the world of supercomputers. In July, President Barack Obama issued an executive order, detailing the need for a new high-performance computer by 2017 — a 100-petaflop machine he hopes will be the fastest supercomputer in the world.

Although we need fast supercomputers, it’s increasingly apparent the traditional models aren’t working. In the ABACUS project mission statement they write, “we have also begun to encounter problems for which nobody has been able to find efficient shortcuts.” Those include “new drug design, scheduling activities, checking that engineering systems work as they are designed to.”

The hope is that biological supercomputers, which are designed to be smaller and less energy consuming that traditional supercomputers, will be able to find these efficient shortcuts.

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