A stark limitation to biological computers was that any code programmed into DNA couldn't be rewritten. UC Davis computer scientist David Doty told Wired that using a DNA computer is "like having to build a new computer out of new hardware just to run a new piece of software."
But now, Doty and his team have built the first DNA-based computer that can be written and rewritten like any other — a potentially revolutionary leap that could lead to the next generation of biological computing.
In research published Wednesday in the journal Nature, Doty and other scientists from UC Davis, California Institute of Technology, and Harvard describe a DNA-based computer with 355 different "tiles" of DNA that can be compared to the circuits in a conventional computer.
Compared to existing DNA circuitry that can only run one program, the team of researchers managed to program their computer to run 21 different programs, which can do simple things like counting, selection options from a list, and recognizing palindromes.
It's all early work — Wired describes the study as producing "beautiful, albeit useless results" — but it could lay the groundwork for a new generation of flexible, programmable biological computers.
Conventional computers still have a major advantage over DNA-based systems, in part because of how much of a head start they have. Your laptop has decades of development behind it, so the people writing new programs don't need to also study materials science, circuitry, and all of the other various disciplines that led to the first computer.
But as research like Doty's develops and more team of scientists build on the work, that may change — Wired envisions a future where molecular programmers can approach their trade with just as narrow and specialized a focus as today's computer scientists can.
READ MORE: Finally! A DNA Computer That Can Actually Be Reprogrammed [Wired]
More on DNA computers: Self-Replicating “DNA Computers” Are Set to Change Everything