As powerful as modern computers are, nature bested us a long time ago. Living organisms could be thought of as computers already – their cells act like logic gates, taking input from the outside world, processing it and responding with certain metabolic processes.
“The human body itself is a large computer,” says Martin Fussenegger, lead researcher of the study. “Its metabolism has drawn on the computing power of trillions of cells since time immemorial. And in contrast to a technical supercomputer, this large computer needs just a slice of bread for energy.”
Tapping into these natural processes to build logic circuits is a key goal of synthetic biology. In this case, the ETH Zurich team found a way to slot dual-core processors into human cells by first modifying the CRISPR gene-editing tool. Normally, this system uses guide RNA sequences to target specific DNA segments in the genome, then make precise edits. For this project though, the team created a special version of the Cas9 enzyme that can act as the biological equivalent of a computer processor.
This special Cas9 instead reads guide RNA as inputs, and in response expresses particular genes. That in turn creates certain proteins as the output. These processors act like digital half adders – essentially, they can compare two inputs or add two binary numbers, and deliver two outputs. To boost the computing power, the researchers managed to squeeze two processor cores into one cell.
In the long run these dual-core cell computers could be stacked up by the billion to make powerful biological computers for diagnosing and treating disease, as well as, in the longer term, they could even help turn humans into powerful supercomputers themselves – something already demonstrated, in the lab at least, by researchers after they found new ways to make that a reality.
When looking at use cases for their new biological computers the team says they could be used to look for biomarkers in the blood and respond by creating different therapeutic molecules and treatments, depending on whether one, the other or both biomarkers are present.
“Imagine a microtissue with billions of cells, each equipped with its own dual-core processor,” says Fussenegger. “Such ‘computational organs’ could theoretically attain computing power that far outstrips that of a digital supercomputer – and using just a fraction of the energy.”
Matthew Griffin, described as “The Adviser behind the Advisers” and a “Young Kurzweil,” is the founder and CEO of the World Futures Forum and the 311 Institute, a global Futures and Deep Futures consultancy working between the dates of 2020 to 2070, and is an award winning futurist, and author of “Codex of the Future” series.
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