Because of the physical limitations of silicon-based circuitry, there is an upper limit to how powerful a modern computer can be made. In response to this, researchers have been looking into other mediums to build faster and more powerful computers from, including using quantum-based processors, and neurological chips based on human brain cells. Another promising idea, based on DNA, plans to utilize the otherwise naturally-occurring computer of genetics.

A team of researchers from Duke University have now taken us a step further toward the reality of DNA computers, by programming a series of easily-replicable genetic strands to perform mathematical calculations, using their own code. The two sides of each DNA strand have their own corresponding chemical bases that match with one another, alanine with taurine, and cytosine with guanine, making a digital code, although one based on the four-phase GATC, as opposed to the more familiar 1 and 0 that makes up the binary code our current computers use.

The genetic strands that performed the calculations are far from ready to compete with electronic-based devices, as each calculation takes some time to do, on the order of hours in some cases: “We can’t even begin to think of competing with modern-day PCs or other conventional computing devices,” says Professor John Reif, who led the experiment. But, “Even very simple DNA computing could still have huge impacts in medicine or science.”

Reif sees this new computing technique as a way to integrate small computer systems within the human body, without having to resort to intrusive electronic devices. DNA computers could be specifically coded to not interfere with the body’s normal operations, but could quietly monitor the bloodstream for chemical markers that indicate trouble, or perhaps even to activate automatically to augment the body’s immune system in the event of a health crisis.