Olympus develops DNA computer for gene analysis

By Kuriko Miyake
Wednesday, 20 February, 2002

Olympus Optical has developed what the company claims is the first commercially practical DNA computer that specialises in gene analysis.

Unlike a conventional microprocessor, which uses electrical impulses and processes information one step at a time, a DNA computer relies on chemical reactions between fragments of DNA.

When combined, coded DNA fragments group together to create strands, each one signifying a possible answer to a problem. A further chemical reaction can be used to separate strands and find the desired answer. Because multiple reactions can take place inside a test-tube at the same time, the reaction is the equivalent of massively parallel processing.

This has some people suggesting that DNA computers may eventually succeed silicon-based microprocessors in applications where large amounts of processing power are needed, such as gene analysis, aiding in research of different species in biology and the diagnosis of various diseases where many calculations are required at once.

Gene analysis has been usually done manually, by arranging DNA fragments and observing the chemical reactions. But that was time-consuming, said Satoshi Ikuta, a spokesman for Olympus Optical. When DNA computing is applied to gene analysis, what used to take three days can now be done in six hours, he said.

DNA computing also allows scientists to observe chemical reactions that occur simultaneously, lowering research costs, Ikuta said.

Olympus Optical has become the first company to overcome the challenge of building a DNA computer, Ikuta said.

"The bottleneck was that engineers were required to have expert knowledge in two specific fields, in order to develop a gene analysis DNA computer," Ikuta said. The two fields, information processing engineering and molecular biology, which are called genome informatics as a whole, are essential in the gene analysis research, he said.

To achieve this, the company formed a joint venture, NovousGene, which specialises in genome informatics, last February. The principles for a DNA computer that works for gene analysis were provided by Tokyo University's Akira Toyama.

The computer Olympus Optical has developed is divided into two sections, a molecular calculation component and an electronic calculation component. The former calculates DNA combinations of molecules, implements chemical reactions, searches and pulls out the right DNA results. The latter executes processing programs and analyses these results, Olympus said.

The company will start gene analysis using the DNA computer on a trial basis for a year, and from 2003 hopes to offer the service on a commercial basis for researchers.

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