A Look Into the World of Biocomputing
What happens when computing and biology combine? We enter a new world of possibilities, no longer bound by the limitations of silicon chips or the mysteries of DNA.
So… what’s biocomputing?
Glad you asked! Biocomputing, short for biological computing, is an intersectional field where scientists try to essentially turn DNA (or deoxyribonucleic acid) into a mini computer, capable of storing data, carrying out commands and more. If you think about it, it’s the natural next step. We’ve spent so long perfecting technology and computing that we’ve forgotten the DNA and cells in our bodies are amazing computing machines that have been around for thousands of years. You might be thinking that cells and DNA aren’t really able to do much outside the body and that’s where you’re wrong! They are super powerful so let’s explore that further!
The Best Computational Machines Are Inside YOU
Let’s start with what DNA is. It’s what makes you you. But you already knew that! On a more technical level (which is what we’re interested in right now) it’s a molecule in the shape of a double helix with a phosphate backbone and 4 base pairs. The bases are called adenine (A), thymine (T), cytosine (C), and guanine (G). They’re called base pairs because A always pairs up with T and C with G. The specific sequence our A’s, T’s, C’s, and G’s are in determine what instructions will be carried out once the DNA’s transcripted.
Storing Information In a New Way
This is the part of biocomputing that’s been explored the most: how to store binary information in DNA! Classical computers, the one you’re reading this on right now, use something called the binary system! What you’re likely familiar with is the decimal system where we have ten digits (0 through 9) and in a value with more than one digit, we multiply it by 10 to the power of the position of the number. Let’s take an example, 1547. The 7’s multiplied by 10⁰, the 4’s multiplied by 10¹, the 5 by 10², and the 1 by 10³. They’re then all added up:
With the binary system we only have two digits to work with, 1 and 0 but we can still represent any number! Let’s take this number in binary, 10110 and “unpack” it. In this case, each digit is multiplied by 2 to the power of its place value. So we have: 0*2⁰+1*2¹+1*2²+0*2³+1*2⁴=22. This is cool and all but why’d I just teach you this? It’s because most people think the binary system is limited but it’s really anything but that. In a classical computer, each 1 and 0 will represent a state of “on” or “off” for a wire. So then having just 30 wires, means you can store over 1 BILLION bits (one bit is represented by one wire) of information!
For storing text, each letter can be assigned a number and the sequence of numbers can make up any piece of text you can think of! How about images, videos, and graphics? Well, you’ve heard of pixels; they’re those tiny little squares that make up anything you see on a computer. Usually, they’re so small your eyes just think it’s one synchronous image, but when you blow an image up really big, you start to see them! Each of these pixels is represented by you guessed it, some numbers, and they’re then stored in a sequence. And what about audio? Sound can be represented by wave forms and each point on this wave can be represented by (everyone together) numbers! Great, you’ve got the basics down, let’s apply this to DNA now!
Remember those bases, our A’s, T’s, C’s, and G’s? They are like the 1'0 and 0’s but they encode genetic information. With some engineering, they can store text, images, videos, and audio too! After the data is encoded, it can be stored for a very long time. When we want to access it again, we just sequence it and viola; you’ve got your information!
Small But Powerful: Biological Computers
This is a very interesting but less common application of biocomputing where scientists create biological computers! Like I mentioned above, the very cells in our body are computational machines capable of carrying out millions of tasks simultaneously and quickly.
“But classical computers can do multiple things at once too,” is what you just said, “I’ve listened to music and done my homework at the same time before!” Well, classical computers are actually switching between the tasks so quickly that it appears to be simultaneous. But with biocomputers, it really is. What about quantum computers? They actually can carry out tasks at the same time and so they’re a real rival to biocomputing. Biocomputers have some advantages though, such as the fact that they don’t have to be in a cold environment to function. It is unlikely that biological computers will take over classical or quantum ones, but they will certainly become a new part of our lives!
But WHY: The Advantages of Biocomputing
Biocomputing is really interesting, but you might think we just don’t need it. I mean, classical computers are doing fine, right?
Um, not really. We are generating so much data and we’re projected to keep exponentially increasing that amount too. Just for context, 90% of the data ever produced by humans until 2018 was generated between 2016 and 2018. 90% in 2 years! And we’re running out of space and resources. There’s not an infinite supply of silicon or land but DNA is tiny compared to our data storage systems right now. All of our data right now could be stored in DNA which would only take up the space of a shoebox. A single shoebox. That’s not the only reason either.
Our current storage systems get outdated really quickly. When was the last time you used a cassette tape (if ever)? Or better yet, when was the last time you had a device that could read a cassette? But DNA will never go away (hopefully). As long as there are humans alive, there will be a need to sequence and read DNA.
Need more reasons? DNA’s resilient. When frozen and stored properly, it can last perfectly for thousands of years.
- Biocomputing (or biological computing) is where DNA and/or cells are programmed or reprogrammed to encode information and run tasks
- Check out this awesome video that sums up the basics of binary and storing information in classical computers (tip: watch it on 2x speed)!
- DNA is made up of a phosphate backbone and 4 base pairs, adenine (A), thymine (T), cytosine (C), and guanine (G) which is what the binary data is encoded into.
- DNA is small, powerful and long-lasting making a perfect alternative to how we store our data right now!