Researchers at Columbia University have successfully created the world’s first computer chip powered by an isolated chemical biological process. Natural systems emit enormous amounts of energy that is often underutilized. This new bio-chip represents a high-tech version of “working with nature” and is producing promising results in the laboratory.
To harness the chemical-biological power for their chip, the researchers created a lipid two-layer membrane which contains ion pumps. These naturally occurring pumps are powered by ATP, the miracle molecule that exchanges chemical energy between living cells. Plants create ATP through photosynthesis and it powers important functions, such as cell division, throughout the kingdoms of life.
Researchers attached this ATP-powered membrane to a conventional semiconductor circuit, which took to the ion pumps well. “Ion pumps basically act very similarly to transistors,” Shepard says. “The one we used is the same kind of pump that is used to maintain the resting potential in neurons.” Although whole biological systems have been integrated with computer chips in the past, the isolation and utilization of one component of a biological system is new. “We don’t need the whole cell [now],” Shepard says. “We just grab the component of the cell that’s doing what we want. For this project, we isolated the ATPases because they were the proteins that allowed us to extract energy from ATP.”
Shepard believes this process could be of great utility. “You need a bomb-sniffing dog now, but if you can take just the part of the dog that is useful—the molecules that are doing the sensing—we wouldn’t need the whole animal,” says Shepard. Researchers believe their work may grant a computer chip with the ability to actually taste and smell, an experience that sadly alludes contemporary chips.