A World First
Lead Professor Ken Shepard believes this is first successful attempt to isolate a biological process and use it to power an integrated circuit. The research team developed a system using artificially created lipid bilayer membranes. Each membrane contains naturally occurring ion pumps, which are powered by the living world's so-called “energy current module,” adenosine triphosphate (ATP).
ATP is the coenzyme tasked with transferring chemical energy between living cells, and is an end product of natural processes such as photosynthesis and cellular respiration. In humans, it powers some of the mechanical work of our living systems, such as cell division and muscle contraction.
Shepard explains that "Ion pumps basically act very similarly to transistors, the one we used is the same kind of pump that is used to maintain the resting potential in neurons. The pump produces an actual potential across an artificial lipid membrane. We packaged that with the IC and we used the energy across that membrane due to those pumped ions to power the integrated circuit."
Where previously research teams have attempted to interface entire living systems with chips, the Columbia Engineering team are approaching the project using isolation and artificial biological components. This means their project doesn’t need access to the whole cell to begin with, only the component of the cell performing their chosen activity. And as they needed power, isolating the ATP coenzymes makes perfect development sense.
This approach should make further development a slightly easier transition path. Once the research team perfect the transition of energy, it will allow them to become slightly more creative with their ideas, and slightly more experimental with the type of computing or electronic device they develop alongside.
The next biggest challenge facing the team, and indeed the entire biological computing research community is that of biological decay. Once this major issue is cracked, who knows what biological computing we will be getting to grips with?
Image courtesy of coooldesign / freedigitalphotos.net.