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Thursday, February 19, 1998 Published at 12:09 GMT


Computers come to life

Israeli scientists are working on a revolutionary idea to make computers smaller by using DNA strands to 'grow' the circuitry.

The research could signal the beginning of a takeover of the electronics industry by biotechnology.

At present, silicon chip manufacturers are unable to make the chips significantly smaller by using current methods.

But a team at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology believes it can squeeze up to one million times more electronics into the space occupied by today's fastest computer by using the self-assembling properties of DNA - the molecule which carries and reproduces our genetic information.

The Israeli team used DNA to grow a connection between two electrodes, which was then made into an extremely thin wire by depositing atoms of silver on it.

The team say the wire they have made is three times narrower than the finest made by conventional means.

But they say much finer connections should be possible and, by programming the DNA to produce complex networks of strands, ultra-miniaturised circuitry can be produced.

[ image: DNA strands are being employed to make minute circuitry]
DNA strands are being employed to make minute circuitry
All the technology needed to cut and shape DNA already exists in the shape of the natural enzymes used in biotechnology.

The arguments for making electronic devices smaller are compelling. They work faster, they can be fitted into smaller spaces, they need less power and they produce less heat.

Dr Uri Silvan of the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology said: "Conventional microelectronics is pretty much approaching its miniaturisation limit.

"Using X-ray lithography to make circuitry we can go down to dimensions of 0.1 or 0.05 microns. [One micron is a millionth of a metre]

"But the dimensions we are talking about are much, much smaller than that, they are about one nanometre, roughly about 250 times smaller than the smallest dimensions in contemporary microelectronics. [One nanometre is a thousand millionth of a metre]

"If you are really able to fabricate devices with these dimensions, you could squeeze roughly 100,000 times more electronics, or even one million times more electronics, into the same volume. That would mean much bigger memories and much faster electronics.

"In order to do that we need materials with self-assembling properties. We need molecules into which we can encode information which later will make them build themselves into very complex structures. Information is stored in DNA in this way, information which is used by biological systems to build very complex molecules. We are really trying to copy that idea."

If DNA does form the scaffolding for future electronic circuitry, then biotechnology is likely to move into the electronics industry. Tomorrow's computers may look more like jellyfish than the plastic and metal boxes of today.


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