Paul Rothemund, a “molecular programmer”, wants us to think of biology the way we think about computers. “People argue vigorously about the definition of life. Does it involve reproduction? Metabolism? Evolution? I don’t know – but it does involve computation.”
DNA is a computer program, he tells us, and therefore “Chris Anderson is a computer-fabricated artifact.” With minor changes, we could turn him into Craig Venter; with bigger changes, we can make him a poodle. A small mutation turns a two winged fly into a four winged one… or makes the six fingered man from “The Princess Bride”. This sensitivity to change is similar to the sensitivity of data in computers – “change a single bit in your bank balance and you could change a thousand dollars.”
Rothemund wants to use biomolecules as programming parts. He sees pieces of DNA as being available to create cameras, solar panels, motors and girders of the cell. Rothemund is trying to manufacture a wide range of parts from DNA, building a compiler which can allow you to grow complex structures. (One slide shows a computer with the string “cellphone.dna.exe” on the screen – a comiler that could grow a cellphone.)
Revealing his long-term agenda, he explains, “We are molecular computers, with electromechanical computers (brains) that can create electrical computers, which will develop new molecular computers.” We have to ask very biological questions about these systems – “How does a baby know when to stop growing? We’ll need to ask ‘how does your cellphone know when to stop growing?'”
Rothemund is best known for DNA origami – folding the DNA ofthe M13 bacterial virus – which is 1 millionth of a meter long – and adding some synthetic DNA “staples”. Using some very basic software, and “mixing chemicals in your kitchen”, Rothemund has been able to specify and order DNA that will fold itself into shapes like rectangles or happy faces.
These happy faces are one thousandth of the width of a human hair. They’re basically a proof of concept for a DNA compiler. A researcher in China, using his technique, has sent him a map of China. And other researchers are trying to make more useful structures, including a DNA switch that’s a tenth of the size of the switches we see on circuit boards.
Folding strands is a difficult way to make large structures – to make something as large as a human being, Rothemund calculates that we’d need to fold a strand that’s 3 trillion light years long. So we need a different technique – algorithmic self assembly of tiles. These tiles can assemble themselves, and then interlink. If we interlink them with switches, we can treat these tiles as bits, building complex computers. The tiles actually assemble in ways similar to the structure of computer memory.
He shows us how far he’s come in nine years:
The system here counts up… just not very accurately. This is still very early research, but amazing to think about the potentials of building computers from DNA tiles.
With all this talk of DNA, it’s nice to know that genes aren’t destiny. Dean Ornish gives a three minute talk, urging us to “eat healthier, reduce stress, get more exercise and love more” as it will literally increase our brain size. There are foods and behaviors that improve brain health – chocolate, tea, blueberries, alcohol in moderation, THC and stress management – and others than harm the brain – saturated fats, simple sugars, cocaine, too much alcohol.
People who have changed their behaviors have seen prostate tumor shrinkage in studies – 70% reduction versus 9% in a control group. He points out tha nicotine causes impotence – “half of guys who smoke are impotent – how sexy is that?”
“Our genes are not our fate. We’ve got predispositions, but we can change how our genes are expressed.”