This DNA computer 'grows as it computes'

For several decades now, researchers have been working on building computers out of DNA that can perform simple tasks. Some approaches are analogue, as opposed to digital. Others use shampoo

The idea of using DNA was first proposed in 1994 to address key limitations of silicon. The tiny size and supreme stability of the molecule give it a number of advantages over traditional computers, making it ideal for problem-solving.

But now, researchers at the University of Manchester have seized on another property of DNA - its ability to replicate itself. 

“Imagine a computer is searching a maze and comes to a choice point, one path leading left, the other right,” said Ross King, from Manchester’s School of Computer Science.

“Electronic computers need to choose which path to follow first. But our new computer doesn’t need to choose, for it can replicate itself and follow both paths at the same time, thus finding the answer faster."

Parallel calculations

This ability to copy itself means that a computer can run almost as many parallel calculations at a time as you like. 

"Our computer’s ability to grow as it computes makes it faster than any other form of computer, and enables the solution of many computational problems previously considered impossible," added King.

These techniques are still some way off commercialisation - there are currently issues with error correction, for example, which need to be solved. But the team believes that eventually they could outperform standard computers on many important practical problems.

The team's research, which is due to be published in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface, was published last year on the arXiv pre-print server.

Duncan Geere
Duncan Geere is TechRadar's science writer. Every day he finds the most interesting science news and explains why you should care. You can read more of his stories here, and you can find him on Twitter under the handle @duncangeere.