Denmark hosts international workshop on molecular programming
Jun 06, 2013
The article below was featured as the main story in the Danish Council for Strategic Research’s newsletter, May 2013.
Molecular programming may ultimately come to function as software in nanotechnological devices and serve to embed advanced functions at the nanotechnological level such as in the brain of an insect, for example. On 2-4 May 2013, the Danish Council for Strategic Research hosted the international workshop entitled 'Advances in Molecular Programming and Computing: Toward Chemistry as a New Information Technology'.
The workshop, held at the Carlsberg Academy and the Magleås business training centre, was attended by the world's leading researchers in the field, cutting across disciplines such as mathematics, computer science, molecular biology, physics and chemistry.
In the following, the Planning Committee's Danish participant Professor Kurt Gothelf, Centre for DNA Nanotechnology, Aarhus University, tells us about molecular programming and about the impacts of the technology and the workshop.
What is molecular programming?
To boil it down to the basics, it's about encoding information and processes in biological and organic molecules. Silicon-based computers essentially consist of Ones and Zeros while genetic code consists of a four-letter system. The encoding in molecules and silicon-based chips is similar, and at the most basic level, the principles are the same - but there are vast differences in the techniques for writing and reading information in the systems. The potentials for molecular programming lie in the interaction with biological systems and in the vast information-density of DNA. Moreover, DNA is a very stable medium in which to store information, as demonstrated by the fact that it is possible to isolate and sequence DNA from animals that became extinct a thousand years ago.
Why was the workshop held in Denmark?
Denmark has potential in this area. We have two technological centres (Interdisciplinary Nanoscience Center, Aarhus University and Center for Fundamental Living Technology, University of Southern Denmark) and a number of Danish mathematicians and computing experts are researching areas related to molecular programming. Our contact with leading American researchers and the US National Science Foundation is well-established. Also, the combination of the scientific community in Denmark, our international networks and the willingness of the Danish Council for Strategic Research to host this workshop meant that we had what it took to bring the event to Denmark.
What were your expectations for the workshop?
The aim for the workshop was to promote a common understanding of the potential for storing and processing information inside molecules. But what counts here the most was to bring together the leading capabilities and disciplines within the field - mathematics, computer science, molecular biology, physics and chemistry. It is crucial for us to build up a cohesive scientific community with a unified and visionary approach to the field, and to identify and define the synergies that exist between the different disciplines. The fact that we convened leading experts in Copenhagen also gives Denmark a good starting point within the field in the long run.
What was the purpose of organizing the workshop?
The disadvantage of molecules is that communicating with them is difficult; encoding information into them is a slow process, and the same goes for reading anything from them. But once that has been done, there are billions of them, and they can perform an incredible amount of actions concurrently. DNA nanotechnology has evolved dramatically since 2000, and it is now possible to programme logic operations inside the molecules. Our better appreciation of the 'computing' that goes on inside cells allows us to create interactions between engineered and natural biological systems, and in that way monitor and control biological systems. Equally, our ability to control nanotechnology devices is becoming more advanced all the time, and within the bio field especially is very promising, and this is sharpening the focus on the field considerably, particularly in the world of medicine.
Is this basic or applied research?
This is definitely basic research. A useful comparison would be the early development of the basic algorithms that were to be used for computing language. Today, this is a significant component of the foundation for the world as we know it, with the internet as a major factor in the world economy. We are defining basic theoretical models for the design of algorithms for biomolecules, and, in this case, for development of the biological software for molecular programming.
What are the prospects for molecular programming?
Advances are happening incredibly fast. We are already seeing scientific applications of existing technology, and new technologies are emerging all the time. I imagine we'll be seeing the first commercial applications within the next decade. But first we have to be clear about the potentials: organic computers are not going to be replacing silicon computers. Silicon computers are amazing and totally optimised. Molecular programming can do other things, one of the most important being its ability to function like software in nanotechnology devices and embed advanced functions at the nanotechnological level - like the brain in an insect. I think we will be seeing hybrids between silicon-based and organic-based technology in which the organic technology will be able to interact with its surroundings.
What do you think the technology will be applied to first?
Some of the first technological applications we are expecting are within intelligent drugs, where specific algorithms via nanotechnology devices go down directly to act at cellular level. In that sense, you could say that molecular programming will be working like a software application in tomorrow's intelligent medicine. In synthetic biology, where biomachinery is put to use and cells are instructed to perform specific actions, there is great interest in this field. Here we have a strong interface with molecular biology, nanotechnology and molecular programming. I'm convinced that the actual product development within synthetic biology will take place in an interaction with the disciplines involved in molecular programming.
How do we benefit from the workshop?
The workshop emphasised that it is an exceptionally wide-ranging research area - and that a great deal is happening internationally. Many of the participants were surprised at how advanced the research is in some of the areas that overlap with their own fields. For me, as a chemist for example, it was interesting to hear the presentations from the participating computing researchers and to realise how the research areas naturally coalesce around molecular programming. At the same time, it's very clear that the research has many knock-on effects on other scientific disciplines across national borders. As I see it, molecular programming is a research area that is set to develop largely from the international networks. And that makes it crucial for national research agencies to wise up to the potentials and back the international networks. Denmark has high potential within molecular programming. This is what makes the Danish Council for Strategic Research's decision to finance and host the workshop so valuable for Danish research within the field.