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What is DNA computing technology?

What is DNA computing, how does biological computing work, and why are Microsoft and IBM investing serious cash into making DNA computing a reality?

Jun 08, 2023 • 8 Minute Read

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In this post, we'll dive into what DNA computing is, how DNA computing works, why it’s on researchers’ minds, and why companies like Microsoft and IBM are investing large sums of cash into making DNA computing technology a reality. Welcome to biological computing!


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What is DNA computing?

The idea behind DNA computing is to use bio-molecular components to fulfill computing tasks — rather than the electronic and silicon components we use in traditional computing.

Why would we want to do that?

Well, the computing power of today is based on increasingly teeny-tiny (that’s a technical term) bits of silicon that conduct electricity: transistors. What happens when we can't make them any smaller . . . and then can't make the CPUs in our computers any faster?

What we need is another way to keep improving the performance of computing. One very promising approach is to use the biocompatible computing device deoxyribonucleic acid, a.k.a. DNA.

No, this isn't about finding fossilized mosquitoes in pieces of amber. DNA computing uses DNA, biochemistry, and molecular biology hardware.

Sounds weird. Can that actually work?

Indeed! In fact, (hold on to your butts) you already own a DNA computing device — your very own self!

In DNA, genetic coding is represented by four different molecules called A, T, C, and G (or adenine, thymine, cytosine, and guanine, if you're feeling fancy). When chained together, these four bits can hold an incredible amount of data. After all, the entire human genome is encoded in something that can be packed into a single nucleus of a cell, which is small. Like, very, very small.

DNA computing vs Quantum computing

It's no surprise that the amount of data we’re producing in the world is exploding. Where do we store it, though? And how do we process it?

Quantum computing is one way. (More on that here.) But there are many hard problems to solve with quantum.

For one, quantum computing requires an extremely cold operating environment — so cold that atoms are at an almost complete stop. The temperature actually has to be below 1° Kelvin, which is -272 °C or -450 °F. This specialized environment requires immense amounts of energy and space-age tech.

In order to show you that funny laughing llama video (or whatever it is you like to watch), transistors inside computers pass electrical signals to each other. A lot of signals.

The transistors in the latest CPU are getting incredibly tiny, just a few nanometers in size. If the transistors get any smaller than they currently are, the electrical current flowing through the transistor can easily leak out into other nearby components or deform the transistor due to the heat produced. If this happens, you get messy currents . . . which don't calculate anything at all. Innovation in computing could grind to a halt.

Quantum computing may be the concept that gets more attention these days, but DNA computing presents another method of increasing computing power that can match or even exceed the power of quantum. When looking conceptually at a DNA or bio computer vs a quantum computer, DNA computing is potentially more stable than quantum computing.

The history of DNA computing

DNA computing isn't exactly a new concept. In 1964, Russian physicist Mikhail Samoilovich Neiman "expressed original ideas and principal considerations of radical miniaturization on elements for recording, storing, and retrieving of digital information to the molecular-atomic level." In other words, DNA computing.

It wasn't until the 1990s that actual DNA computing work started with the storing of data on strands of DNA. Leonard Adelman presented the first prototype of a DNA computer, called the TT-100, which was basically a test tube.

“TT” was in fact short for “Test Tube.” No joke.

You may be thinking, “What does a DNA computer look like?” Well, the TT-100 might have given us a clue to this. The actual computing takes place when DNA is mixed and matched inside a test tube.

Is DNA computing possible?

Yes, DNA computing is possible. In 2019, researchers from Microsoft and the University of Washington demonstrated the first fully automated system to store and retrieve data in manufactured DNA. They wrote… (drumroll, please), “Hello."

Not quite as impressive as the literary works of Shakespeare or the best pizza recipes in the world, but it was done with snippets of fabricated DNA, so that’s something.

The end goal is to reduce warehouse-sized data centers into something much smaller. The cool thing is the end consumer will never know the difference — storage will just continue to be storage. And speaking of storage, so far, the researchers at the University of Washington have managed to store one gigabyte in DNA. (Yes, they did store funny cat photos.)

What is DNA computing used for?

The data we produce every second, of every hour, of every day has to go somewhere. But where? Currently a lot of it ends up in the cloud. Cloud-hosted storage is super cheap, and it’s estimated by 2025, half of the 175 zettabytes of data produced will be stored in the cloud.

What is a zettabyte? It's a billion terabytes!

Microsoft is also concerned about having to store all of these cat GIFs and meme generators, so they're investing in DNA computing technology.

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The benefits of DNA computing

Why does a future that uses DNA computing make sense? Here are 4 reasons why a future that uses DNA computing makes sense:

  • It's cheap
    It has the potential to be inexpensive at scale. We have DNA all around us in every cell of every living thing, so theoretically there's plenty of stock available. However, since DNA computing doesn’t use actual human DNA (it instead relies on artificially produced DNA) production is currently the main hurdle. Once the scales of economy work in our favor, though, DNA for computing will be inexpensive to create.
  • It’s easy to produce
    We do it all the time. DNA naturally wants to reproduce, so it’s just a matter of harnessing this natural tendency in an artificial environment when DNA manufacturing.
  • It’s scalable
    How scalable is DNA storage? Scientists estimate that DNA could hold 455 exabytes of data. An exabyte equals eight quintillion bytes, or 1 billion gigabytes. Formatted in DNA, every movie ever made would fit inside a volume smaller than a sugar cube! (Just don’t put it in your coffee. Oops.)
  • Parallel computing solutions
    DNA can perform countless calculations in parallel. While classical computing quickly reaches a limit of how many parallel computations can be made, DNA computing has almost no limit. This makes it ultra fast and incredibly powerful for scenarios like machine learning.

The disadvantages of DNA computing

  • Current cost
    The cost of DNA computing has to come way down before you can buy your own DNA computer and fill it with ALL of the internet. For example, the current cost of storing and encoding one megabyte of data is $1 million. And in reality, it may never be possible to have a personal DNA computer. The future of computing is not about extremely powerful devices in your pocket, but rather super-fast connections to the cloud and other services. DNA computers will be doing huge calculations and storing enormous amounts of data in service of our personal machines — not in place of them.
  • Slow performance for simple functions
    While DNA computers excel at complex tasks requiring multiple simultaneous operations, they may actually be less efficient than silicon computers when competing simple, sequential tasks.

Security and DNA computing in cryptography

One area that will benefit hugely from DNA computing is data security. DNA-based security sounds like a terrible plot in a cheap sci-fi movie, but it’s real . . . or rather, it will be.

DNA-based cryptography works largely like classic cryptography, using a private and public key. But, because DNA cryptography is incredibly fast, the keys can be massive.

Why DNA computing is part of the future of tech

DNA computing carries the promise of cheap, huge, accessible data storage and an exponential increase in computing power and speed.

There are still huge challenges, though, not least of which is the cost of creating the DNA. However, we are already past the proof-of-concept phase and real money is being spent to create real commercial solutions for DNA cryptography in cloud computing and network security.

Do you have an opinion on DNA computing and what it could be useful for? Join the conversation on Twitter, Facebook, on our Discord server. You can also message me on Twitter. And don’t forget to subscribe to A Cloud Guru on YouTube for more awesome content like this but in a no-reading-required video form. Fun!