Researchers at McGill University have helped to develop a model of a biological supercomputer that can solve complex mathematical problems using very little energy.

Despite recent advances in computer technology, electronic computers are still limited to solving one problem at a time.

"For a bigger problem we have to make a larger computer," Dan Nicolau, chair of the department of bioengineering at McGill, told CBC News.

That's why supercomputers are housed in rooms the size of basketball courts and often require their own power plants to function.  

supercomputer

Strings of proteins of different lengths travel around the microchip that powers a new model biological supercomputer. (Till Korten/McGill University )

By contrast the new model biocomputer — developed by a team of international scientists from Canada, the U.K., Germany, The Netherlands and Sweden — is energy-efficient, performs multiple calculations simultaneously and is roughly the size of a book.

"A biocomputer requires less than one per cent of the energy an electronic transistor needs to carry out one calculation step," study co-ordinator Heiner Linke, director of nanoscience at Lund University in Sweden, said in a press release.

The findings have been published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

At the core of the model is a 1.5 square-centimetre microchip, which uses myosin, molecular motors that carry out mechanical tasks in living cells, to move protein filaments along artificial paths. 

In a traditional computer, electrons are propelled through a chip by an electrical charge. But in the biocomputer, short strings of proteins are powered by Adenosine triphosphate, the chemical that provides energy to the cells in our bodies. 

This is not the first research to apply parallel computing to complex problem-solving. DNA computing and quantum computing, for example, take a similar approach.

"However, these approaches have not proven, so far, to be scalable and practical from a fabrication and operational perspective," the researchers note. 

Father-son duo

The idea for the protein-powered biocomputer began with a conversation between Nicolau and his son, Dan Nicolau Jr., a mathematician and first author of the study.

fibres

Actin fibres, labelled in green, moving across a collection of myosin. (Nicolau lab, McGill University)

Asked what it was like to work with his son to develop this technology, Nicolau laughed. 

"We are perfectly complementary. He knows very little about engineering ... and I have not that much mathematical knowledge either."

So far, the model is only designed to solve a specific type of problem, but now that they've proven it works, Nicolau said it's just a matter of time before we see full-scale biological supercomputers.