DNA Computing: Meet Dr. Adleman

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In 1958, the integrated circuit was invented. Since then, computers have been getting smaller and smaller. Now, a computer that can fit in your hand is more powerful than an old computer that took up an entire room. So, imagine how the world will change if we build computers from the building blocks of life, DNA (Deoxyribonucleic acid)! 

This science, DNA Computing, has been advancing ever since it’s development in 1994 by a person named Leonard Adleman. He used DNA strands to solve the Traveling Salesman problem -- which is a problem involving seven towns. The goal is to find the path that visits each town only once. He was a professor at University of Southern California when he conducted his research. He also won the Turing award in 2002 for his contribution to the field. The Turing Award is a very prestigious award that is sometimes referred to as the nobel prize of computer science.

I recently had an opportunity to interview Adleman about his work. I asked him what inspired him and about the future and importance of DNA computing :

Q: Why is DNA computing so important?  What impact does it have on the world?

Adleman: There is a famous old saying: it is not that the bear dances so well, it is that he dances at all. The most important thing about DNA computing is that it shows that DNA molecules can do what we normally think only computers can do. This implies that Computer Science and Biology are closely related. That every living thing can be thought to be computing something, and that, sometimes, we can understand living things better by looking at them as computers. 

Q: What is the future of DNA computing? 

Adleman: Don't know for sure, but I am pretty sure that some very interesting things will grow out of this. I have two former students Paul Rothemund and Erik Winfree at Caltech who are doing amazing things. 

Q: What made you choose this as a career?

Adleman: Fun and beauty.  Science (and my favorite part of it, mathematics) is fun to do, and when you discover something new it is wonderfully exciting.

Q: What kind of background did it take to become proficient in this field?

Adleman: It’s like many other things, you do your best when you have some natural ability, you have teachers who show you how to best use your ability, and you are delighted to be doing what you are doing.  Not everyone is lucky enough to have all of this, but it is something to seek when you are young. 

Since Adleman’s research, new developments have been made. For example, logic gates (any circuit that is able to make a decision i.e. : and, or, not) can now be made up of little enzymes called DNAzymes.

Imagine your smartphone someday being built out of DNAzymes. Another breakthrough in the science of DNA computing is the invention of a programming language called DSD (DNA Strand Displacement) which is used to manipulate DNA strands to perform certain actions (like blinking a light). The language was developed by Microsoft research. 

And did you know, the sum total of the world's data (1.8 zettabytes) can be stored in about 4 grams of DNA? DNA computing may not be a flawless science, but it is truly the future of computing.