Basics of Biological Computing

At the intersection of biology and computation lies biological computing. It’s a subfield of computer science and computer engineering, where principles of bioengineering and biology help build computers.

Eventually, a biocomputer could be an implantable device to monitor the body’s activities and characteristics, deliver medicine in the body and bring on therapeutic effects. A biological computer could protect against viruses and prevent cancer, or even break down environmental toxins!

Once we’ve covered what conventional computers are and their fundamental components, we can understand the basics of biological computers.

A conventional computer is an electronic device for data storing and processing, that executes the instructions from a program. It’s what you’re using to read this article.

Since modern, or binary, computers can follow numerous programs, they can perform a wide range of tasks with ease. There are, however, shortcomings to the technology. Thus, quantum and biological computers offer nonpareil advantages.

But what does a regular computer need to be capable of? It must be able to store data, transmit information between components and hold a system of logic. Let’s find out what that means…

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While traditional computer “hardware” refers to the physical components, their “software” concerns the code for the computer program.

Transistors

Etched onto silicon chips, microscopic transistors switch between two binary states — OFF and ON, 0 and 1. These switches regulate the flow of electrons in a wire and amplify certain electronic signals.

If binary code is the language of computers, then transistors are the building blocks of computers.

Since these building blocks are often smaller than human hair, billions of them can be packed onto a single computer chip. The more fit on a chip, the faster a processor is.

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Boolean Logic Gates

Logic gates enable the many transistors to make quick decisions, and consequently, perform complex calculations.

Like all digital systems, computers rely on Boolean logic to make decisions. Logic gates implement this Boolean logic and, therefore, are the elementary units of digital circuits.

Although, in theory, there is no maximum number of gates that can be placed on a single device, in practice, only so many gates can be packed into a certain space.

These are the 7 basic logic gates:

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Instead of wires and electric signals, biological computers are made up of living cells. A biocomputer comprises a series of metabolic pathways, the chemical reactions that build and deconstruct molecules for cellular processes.

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Similar to a conventional computer, a biological computer requires an output and input signal. According to the input (conditions) of the system, the biologically derived molecules, such as proteins, DNA and RNA, will behave a certain way.

Consequently, the output is based on the absence or presence of proteins and other molecules. The result can be interpreted and analyzed with laboratory equipment.

The biological equivalent of transistors are transcriptors, and rather than being composed of silicon, they’re made up of DNA and RNA. Thanks to transcriptors, biocomputers can respond to the aforementioned commands, such as AND, OR, NAND and NOR.

Different logic gates entail different results.

For instance, the AND gate would produce an output when it detects the presence of both drugs, whereas the NOR gate would produce an output when neither drug is noticed.

A cell can be programmed to indicate exposition to stimuli (eg. caffeine, glucose) and to reproduce based on certain factors, as well as to behave alongside other cells. Hence, biological computers could identify types of cellular activity and determine whether it is harmful with boolean logic equations.

Additionally, by influencing enzyme activity, the biocomputers regulate gene expression. They could trigger changes in the production of specific gene products (proteins).

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Biocomputers have applications in the medical field, where evaluation and treatment must occur at the cellular level. Moreover, findings about biocomputers could be applied to neurochemistry, to help us better understand the nervous system.

Using far less energy than standard computers, biocomputers could efficiently solve complex mathematical problems and perform calculations. By using chemical inputs and biological molecules, biocomputers have the ability to perform computational calculations, including data storage and retrieval.

Although I analogize biocomputers to conventional computers in this article, the comparison doesn’t take into account the diverse operations and functions of natural systems. In reality, biocomputers could achieve a myriad of purposes and perform countless tasks, distinct from regular computers.

Since the current capabilities of biocomputers resemble that of a 1920s computer, it’ll take some time for them to reach the sophistication of regular computers. Biological molecules won’t soon supplant CPUs, but by combining them with current computer hardware, we could leverage both systems.

The complex structure of biological molecules could allow for them to someday outperform electronic computers.

In the meantime, living organisms can offer insight on the functionality of biocomputers. Exploring organisms at a molecular level could enable us to better understand and study the emerging field of biological computing.

Thanks for reading the Basics of Biological Computers! If you enjoyed my article or would like to connect, you can find me on LinkedIn.

computational biology & biological computing. ammiellewb.com