A supercomputer
An international group of scientists has figured out how to make the parallel computing seen in great hulking supercomputers work in a device the size of a book iStock

A group of international scientists has developed a biocomputer the size of a book or laptop that can solve mathematical problems as quickly as a supercomputer because it operates in parallel rather than in sequence.

Researchers from Lund University, Linnaeus University, University of California Berkeley, Dresden University of Technology, Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics, the University of Liverpool, McGill University, Molecular Sense Ltd and Philips Innovation Services have used nanotechnology to create molecular motors that can perform several calculations simultaneously rather than sequentially.

Today, regular computers queue up processes and run them one after another in succession, while supercomputers use tens of thousands of parallel processors to solve problems much faster. However, because you need to have so many processors in order to get a supercomputer to work, price and scale have always been key drawbacks to the technology.

But now researchers have found a way to make parallel computing work on a much smaller scale. Molecular motors are large molecules that can carry out mechanical tasks in living cells, for example myosin, which is found in human muscle cells. Outside the cell, myosin can be used to move protein filaments made of actin along artificial paths to direct the filaments' movements.

"In simple terms, it involves the building of a labyrinth of nano-based channels that have specific traffic regulations for protein filaments. The solution in the labyrinth corresponds to the answer of a mathematical question, and many molecules can find their way through the labyrinth at the same time", says Heiner Linke, director of NanoLund, the Centre for Nanoscience at the Lund University in Sweden and coordinator of the parallel computer study.

"The fact that molecules are very cheap and that we have now shown the biocomputer's calculations work leads me to believe that biocomputers have the prerequisites for practical use within ten years. Certainly, quantum computers can be more powerful in the long term, but there are considerable practical problems involved in getting them to work."

To demonstrate how quickly molecular motors can work, the researchers compared how long it would take a sequential computer and a parallel biocomputer to solve the "Subset Sum Problem", which is a well-known combinatorial problem, and they found that the biocomputer took a much short time to test all the possible solutions to the problem to find the right one.

Their research, entitled "Parallel computation with molecular-motor-propelled agents in nanofabricated networks" is published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).