It is becoming increasingly clear that information processing plays a central role in enabling the functionality of biological systems from the molecular to the ecological scales. Advances in the science of synthetic biology are beginning to suggest possible pathways for extending future semiconductor technologies. SemiSynBio program encourages research ideas motivated by biological information processing and aiming at future highly functional, space-limited, digital and analog computing and semiconductor technologies with high information density and extremely low energy consumption. Research in this domain is expected to spur new approaches toward alternative computing paradigms.
DNA-based Storage Technologies
Today, the world is creating data at a much faster rate than storage technologies can handle. There is a risk that within 10-15 years, buying exponentially more storage capacity will become prohibitively expensive (and potentially impossible due to limited materials supply, e.g. silicon wafers). The mainstream data storage technologies, i.e. optical, magnetic (HDD & Tape), and solid-state (e.g. flash) are already close to the physical limits of scaling. Therefore, the world is facing a serious data storage problem that cannot be resolved by current technologies. DNA and other sequence-controlled polymers offer far greater potential for scaling exponentially, e.g. 107 above the best expectations for flash or magnetic storage. In theory, a few kilograms of DNA with proper encoding could meet all of the world’s data storage needs in a form that is chemically stable and with retention capability for centuries, a feat that could not currently be supported by projected silicon-based resources. Therefore, it is an opportune time to capitalize on the emerging field of synthetic biology integrated with semiconductor technology to enable the next generation of information storage. Example research topics in DNA storage encompass novel coding and compression algorithms for error-free information recovery, fast and efficient retrieval of specific stored information, optimal size of the DNA strand and, architecture of the memory device.
New Models of Computation Based on Synthetic Biology
Understanding principles of information processing in living cells could enable new generations of computing systems. Among the most promising characteristics of biological computing is the extremely low requirement for energy of operation, close to thermodynamic limits. Another relevant characteristic of biological circuits is their physical size: although the progress of silicon technology has been extraordinary, sub-microscopic computers remain beyond our reach. Nature appears to have successfully addressed the sub-microscopic design challenge, and may suggest new solutions for future microsystems for information processing. Designers for semiconductor circuits and systems have begun to look to biological sciences for new approaches to analog and digital design and to circuits and system architectures, especially for minimum-energy electronic systems. The term ‘cytomorphic electronics’ refers to electronic circuits and information processing inspired by the operation of chemical circuits and information processing in cells.
Bioelectric Sensors, Actuators and Energy Sources
Biological sensors have the potential to play an important role in multi-functional semiconductor systems. As an example, SRC is studying the integration of live cells with CMOS technology to form a hybrid bio-semiconductor system that provides high signal sensitivity and specificity at low operating energy.
Molecular-precision Additive Fabrication
As the demands continue to grow for more exacting pattern formation and complex materials systems for semiconductor fabrication — as feature sizes shrink to the 5 nanometer (nm) regime — molecular-based self-assembly could offer an alternative to lithographically driven manufacturing. DNA can be used as an active agent to provide information content to guide structure formation. SRC is investigating processes that will both improve fabrication yields and provide purification of correctly formed structures that significantly reduce the occurrence of defects in making DNA nanostructures.
A broad-based consortium is being led by SRC toward the development of a SemiSynBio research roadmap. Read more »
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