DNA Takes Square Roots

By Sean Carroll | June 3, 2011 1:00 pm

Around these parts we’ve been known to discuss whether it makes any sense to say that the universe is a computer. There’s little doubt, of course, that parts of the universe are computer-like. And in case you are wondering, you can now officially remove DNA from your personal list of “things I suspect are not computers.”

Caltech researchers Lulu Qian and Erik Winfree have managed to coax 130 strands of DNA into performing what is unquestionably a calculation: taking the square root of a number. (Ars Technica post; Science paper behind paywall; open-access background paper.) Not a big number: we’re talking about four-digit binary numbers, so 15 at the biggest. And not very efficiently: with prodding, the calculation took eight hours. Moore’s Law isn’t really in danger here.

Still, pretty cool stuff. Mostly it’s interesting because it seems scalable: the authors claim that this kind of circuit architecture could be made much larger. It’s not the first biochemical circuit; RNA and bacterial colonies have been made into logic gates. But it’s the first to do something as elaborate as taking a square root.

Best of all, the authors decided to illustrate their method for a wide audience by means of a … whimsical YouTube video! Let’s hope this idea catches on.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Science, Technology, Top Posts
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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] cosmicvariance.com .

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