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A ‘living, breathing’ supercomputer

A ‘living, breathing’ supercomputer 

However, the focus on building so-called “performance-at-any-cost” machines has led to supercomputers that consume enormous amounts of electric power and produce so much heat that cooling facilities need to be built for them.

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So imagine a supercomputer that runs on biological agents instead. It would hardly heat up, and would not need a power plant to function because it would use less power than standard computers. That is what researchers at Montreal’s McGill University are proposing. A team of international researchers led by Prof. Dan Nicolau, chair of the Department of Bioengineering at McGill, recently announced that they have built a model of “bio-supercomputer.”

The model uses Adenosine triphosphate (ATP), the substance that provides energy to all the cells in our bodies. The team published an article about their work in the Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

The model they have created is able to process information “very quickly and accurately using parallel networks, in the same way, massive electronic supercomputers do,” according to a post in the McGill Website. “Except the model bio-supercomputer they created is a whole lot smaller than current supercomputers, uses much less energy and uses proteins present in all living cells to function.”

Prof. Nicolau and his son Dan Jr. actually began work on it more than 10 years ago. It started as a “back of the envelope idea after too much rum,” the professor recalls. Some seven years ago, the father and son team was joined by researchers from Germany, Sweden and The Netherlands.

The biological agents used by the team travel around the circuit powered by ATP in contrast with electrons that are powered by an electrical charge.

Traditional supercomputers use massive amounts of electricity causing the machines to heat up so much that they need to be cooled down with huge air conditioning systems. There will be no need for such systems with biological supercomputers. This would mean huge savings in power costs, but more importantly, it means people could build more powerful computers with less power and cooling constraints.

Nicolau said it is still too early to tell when we will see a full-scale bio-supercomputer.

“One option for dealing with larger more complex problems may be to combine our devic with a conventional computer to form a hybrid device,” he said.

Find out more about their work here by reading the “Parallel computation with molecular-motor-propelled agents in nanofabricated networks” by Dan Nicolau Jr et al in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. (PNAS):

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