Christian Long

Paul Rothemund: Details DNA Folding

In TED Talks on April 20, 2010 at 10:11 pm

Reflection by MIKE N.

Original TED page w/ speaker bio, links, comments, etc:

Paul Rothemund:  Details DNA Folding

Paul Rothemund’s talk on the details of DNA folding is a very interesting one, and I recommend that anyone interested in science, computers, or just technology in general watch it.

Rothemund begins by comparing a computer program to the instructions that exist in organic cells. If a computer program was run in a cell, a human could be made. With a very small change to the program, the cell could make a tree. He says that if you take this metaphor seriously, we could consider any person, or any form of life for that matter, as a computer generated artifact.

He continues to elaborate on how very small changes in computer programs can make very big changes. For example, you have $1 in your bank account, represented in the bank’s computer program by a 11-bit sequence (“0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 1″). Should the first bit be changed from a 0 to a 1 (“1 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 1″), you would now have $1,025 in your bank account.

This made me think – imagine what a computer hacker could do just by changing a single bit in a line of computer code.

Rothemund’s examples have made me realize why banks and computer programs put so much time, effort, and money into making their computers and computer programs so secure.

Rothemund goes on to explain that he and he colleagues are working to use DNA as a type of computer language and to make cell-oriented programs. He says they could use DNA and RNA just like any other computer language, and use them to build things. They would be bio-molecules, while still having nothing to do with technology. This is astonishing. I had no idea that we were anywhere close to even thinking about trying to do something of this magnitude.

I can only begin to imagine the endless amount of new devices and general technology that could be created – on an incredibly small scale.

The first thing that I imagine is a computer – made entirely out of cells. Of course, the computer would have to be big enough to be handled, but theoretically it could be virtually any size that we want. I would think that we could even weave a ’string’ of cells that make up a computer into our clothes. They could have motors built into them, and, along with a computer program, could fold themselves. Amazing.

Rothemund continues to explain how they would manipulate the DNA. He says that the only difficult part of the process is obtaining a single-stranded genome. Once this is done, the process is actually quite easy. In fact, Rothemund has already been able to ’shape’ the DNA.

Here’s what has amazed me – he simply had a computer program design the short staples to hold the DNA together in a certain way, mixed them, heated them, and when they cooled, he had 50 billion smiley faces the size of one-thousandth the width of a human hair floating around in a single drop of water. Simply amazing.

Life uses computations to create diverse and complex forms. These are molecular computations, and to understand them, we have to build them. Therefore, Paul Rothemund and his colleagues are going to use molecules and rebuild everything from the bottom up, using DNA in ways that nature never intended. They are taking questions that have existed in science for a long time and looking at them in a whole new light.

They are just beginning to understand how biology can do amazing things that we have never before dreamed of.

The complex sciences that they are working on, in my opinion, will change the world and how we see it – and soon.


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