What is Biological Computing?

February 7, 2023 - Lou Farrell

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How many computers or computer-adjacent products do you use on a daily basis? For most people, you’re probably naming off a desktop computer or laptop, a cell phone or maybe the Kindle you use to read. These are just a few possible answers, especially if you include smart appliances and the Internet of Things.

When we hear the word computer, most people think of an amalgamation of copper and silicon, ranging in size from desktop towers to smartphones in their pockets. Modern computing is inherently synthetic, but researchers are working to change this stereotype. What is biological computing, and how could it change the future of technology as we know it?

Define Biological Computing

For decades, neuroscience has fed into the metaphor that the human brain is nothing more than a biological computer. Modern research shows us that isn’t the case, but the descriptor has stuck. What is biological computing if we’re not talking about the human brain?

Biological computing is an interdisciplinary science that strives to use biological organisms to complete computational tasks. Researchers are working on using DNA or proteins within cells to carry out basic calculations. These can occur in a lab setting or digitally. The microscopic scale of these computers could also make them a branch of nanotechnology or nanobiotechnology, depending on the applications. 

Instead of using wires to transmit information — such as the 1s and 0s you see in binary — biological computing relies on chemical inputs. Currently, these biological computers are rudimentary at best, offering capabilities similar to the early computers of the 1920s. It’s nothing compared to the computing power of even a mobile phone. The fact that it’s entirely biological makes it such an exciting advancement. 

Computational Biology vs. Biological Computing

Alan Turing is considered one of the fathers of modern computing. In addition to his work during World War II creating a computer that could crack the Axis codes to help the Allies achieve victory in many engagements, Turing was also one of the first to use computers to paint a clearer picture of the biological world. 

Turing developed a mathematical model to study morphogenesis or the biological process that causes cells to take a specific shape during embryonic development. He published a paper in 1952 exploring the Chemical Basis of Morphogenesis that is still cited today. He also laid the foundations for modern artificial intelligence by pushing for computers designed to look and function like the human brain. He didn’t see it then but created the foundation for biological computing and computational biology. 

They sound similar, but the two fields are distinctly different. Turing’s study of morphogenesis is an example of one of the earliest applications of computational biology — using computers to understand complex biological events. While distantly related to biological computing, it relies on traditional computer hardware rather than biological processors. 

Benefits of Biological Computers

If they lack the processing power of current computing systems, why are scientists so fixated on creating functional biological computers?

Proliferation is one of the most significant benefits of biological computing over traditional. There’s no need to source materials for printed circuit boards or processors. Instead, once a cell is programmed, it’s much more cost-effective to grow billions of clones carrying out the same task. Organic cells also have markers that encourage them to create functional systems, reducing the work biological programmers have to put into their projects.  

Biological computers may also be easier to maintain. Think of the human body. More than 1 million cells die every second, even in healthy bodies. These deaths aren’t a problem because your body always makes new cells. Imagine a computer that never needs to replace parts because it constantly regrows the cells necessary to keep it running. 

Challenges of Biological Computing

One of the biggest challenges of biological computing is getting the two fields — computer science and biotechnology — to mesh. Instead of reverse-engineering the things that Mother Nature has already built for us, this field aims to move things forward, which is never easy. 

Applying these technologies in anything other than a laboratory setting is going to be challenging. Biology can be fickle and anything from environmental conditions to the nutrition in the system could cause a cascade failure that could shut down the entire computer system. 

Biological computer systems also don’t have anything near the processing power of modern computers. It’d be like trying to run Twitter or TikTok on the machine that Alan Turning used to crack the Axis code in World War II. It’s a neat idea but lacks practical applications in its current form. 

Applications for Biological Computing

Who needs nanobots or other nanotechnology when you can program a cell to do precisely what you need it to? This particular application will be precious in medicine for creating targeted treatments. By taking a sample of a malignant mass, doctors could program cells to target and treat just that mass without damaging any of the surrounding tissues. They could also be programmed to identify specific biomarkers that could indicate the presence of a disease or genetic condition. It could also prove useful for detecting the genetic markers of recessive disorders that haven’t yet or may never manifest, giving potential new parents a heads up. 

For the foreseeable future, most of the applications for biological computing will be in medicine and research. Station B is Microsoft’s subsidiary focused on biological computing. Working with Princeton University and two biotechnology companies — Oxford BioMedica and Synthace — Station B is hoping to use biological computing to reduce the cost of gene therapy treatments and products. This application could make these treatments more affordable and accessible for those that need them most. 

Shaping the Future of Computing

We know that modern computers are getting smaller and smaller, but we don’t think anyone anticipated them going microscopic — at least not this soon. Biological computing is still in its infancy. It will be long before you can opt for a biological computer instead of one made of copper and silicon. 

The potential applications for biological computing are nearly limitless. For the moment, we’ll likely see them focused in laboratory settings and medicine. Still, as this technology continues to evolve, we could potentially see it shape the future of computing as we know it. 

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Lou Farrell

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