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A New Dawn: 'Genesis Machines'

Published: 14th November 2006

THE NEXT generation of computers are coming - and they’re like nothing we’ve seen before.

Scientists are turning away from silicon chips and instead are using real, wet, squishy, perhaps even living biology to build machines that could change the world forever.

MMU computer scientist Martyn Amos has emerged as a prominent figure in this new science after being the first person to complete a PhD in the field. And tomorrow (November 15) his book Genesis Machines: The New Science of Biocomputation will become the first popular science book published on the subject.

His PhD in the early 1990s at Warwick University proved the feasibility of reprogramming human cells to perform calculations and tasks and Martyn was the second scientist in the world to create a ‘computer’ from a pot of DNA and enzymes so-called ‘wetware’.

New technique

A US experiment had suggested that DNA could be tailored to produce sequences representing every possible answer to a given problem. Amos took that a stage further developed a new technique to strip away swathes of "wrong answer" molecules until the "correct answer" was isolated.

Dr Amos, of MMU's Dalton Research Institute said: "DNA and the cellular machinery that operates it is the original reprogrammable computer, predating man-made efforts by billions of years. It can generate signals, make decisions, switch things on and off like a program that controls its own execution.

"Tapping into biology is immensely powerful because Nature has data storage and processing down to a fine art: every living cell of the human body contains enough data to fill 200 copies of the Manhattan telephone directory!"

Martyn’s exhilarating book describes how this new technology could change the future, introducing nanocomputers similar to the 'nanites' in the film I Robot into our lives and tackling problems that inert machines for all their power, find difficult.

Applications include medical diagnostics and drug delivery where traditional silicon machines are too large, invasive or prone to error. One idea is to create a "doctor in a cell" - a reprogrammed human cell that could roam the body sniffing out and destroying disease.

Poison detection

Martyn explains: "Take the identification of poisons in dirty water, which is a real problem in the Third World. 'Wetware' would allow doctors to use modified bacteria which is sensitive to arsenic, lead or whatever. If the water goes yellow in the test-tube you’ve got poison in the water: an instantaneous answer."

One of his current projects is looking at optimum designs of satellites using DNA of ants whose gravity-defying colonies display highly sophisticated architectural methods.

- Martyn Amos’s book Genesis Machines: The New Science of Biocomputation is published on November 14 by Allen Lane Publishers and launched at an event in London at the institute of Contemporary Arts in association with the Royal Institution.

For more information, contact Dr Martyn Amos on 0161 247 1534 or go to