Computers And Biology By Jack Brown Computers have enhance the study of Biology tremendously, as well discoveries have enhance the progression of computers. Without computers, Biology would be no where. We would not have the high tech microscopes. We would not be able to process information at lighting speeds. Finally, we would have no place to store all the information that we gathered.
Can you imagine all the paper we would use to record all the information that we gather? Computers have not only helped us with experimenting; they have helped us to educate students. There has been tons of software developed to educate students about science and in particular Biology. They have allowed students to create experimental 3D models, collect research and now students can even use computers to dissect Virtual Creatures Aimed at middle school and high school students, Virtual Creatures is the creation of a group called SUMMIT (Stanford University Medical Media and Information Technologies Group). SUMMIT was founded eight years ago to create computer-based teaching tools for the Stanford University School of Medicine and has expanded to provide educational multimedia for medical students and doctors. This program will allow students to dissect frogs without the scalpels, probes or formaldehyde. Without touching the frog, you can rotate it to view it from any angle and study its external anatomy.
On command, the skin turns transparent. You can even zoom through it to view the muscles, or peel the muscles back to expose the internal organs and skeleton. The Virtual Creatures team used virtual reality technology to create a rich environment -- called Frog Island -- with many opportunities for interactive learning. After being greeted by a ranger who explains how to get around the island, students can visit, in any order, a series of huts, each focusing on a different aspect of frog biology: muscles, organ systems, bones, nerves, habitat and so on. With this virtual reality model students dont have to worry about real-life constraints.
For instance, you can take a frog apart in any sequence. You could start with the digestive system and then put it back together. This as you would expect does require a lot of processing power and high-end graphics. But the speed of innovation in the computer industry should soon make the necessary technology affordable for many schools. The SUMMIT team is also looking at ways to transfer most of the processing work to a central computer, which students and teachers could access by logging on from a cheaper computer. This is where biology has actually helped computers develop.
Biology and the study of proteins and molecular biology have helped scientists develop new ways of building computers. They have helped reduce the size and cost of creating components for a computer system. Imagine if we could create a storage medium the size of a sugar cube that stores a terabyte of information. Imagine if I said that it would not be based on silicon transistors, but would be based on protein molecules that change their shape when exposed to light. This enables them to store and transfer massive amounts of data. This technology is called Nanotechnology.
It is leading to the development of electronic components at the molecular and atomic levels. Single bits are going to be represented by single atoms. Chip sizes have been shrinking at an incredible rate. If they continue at the current pace now, it will so be more expensive to shrink then its worth. This new technology may provide the answer in protein-based computing.
Researchers are currently studying several molecules to find a possible biology standard for designing computers. The most popular molecule is a protein called bacteriorhodopsin. Although we are just hearing about it now, Soviet scientists have been interested in this protein since the early 70s. They recognized the potential of the molecule to act as a switch with on and off positions. This is basically how the silicon transistors work today. While silicon transistors alter its state when a current of electricity excites the electrons in it, a protein changes its shape when it absorbs light.
A laser beam is used to control the switching in a matrix of memory cells. Bacteriorhodopsin is a complex protein found in most salt-marsh environments. It contains a light-absorbing component called a chromophore. When this chromosphore is exposed to light, such as a laser beam, it absorbs the rays and causes a series of internal processes to occur with in the bacteriorhodopsin. This changes the electrical character. Scientists can then translate these resulting electrical changes into the binary language.
This is the language that the computer will understand. This experiment has better results when scientists add a second laser. This creates something called a sequential one-photon architecture. For long-term memory applications many bacteriorhodopsin devices tend to create one stable element aside from the natural state, thereby giving you the requisite 0 and 1. Adding another laser beam also enables engineers to create a special intermediate state that can branch into two other stable states.
This is especially useful for an application becoming popular not only in biological circles, but in the holographic community as well; 3D storage. The whole goal here is to create a tiny cube that can store vast amounts of storage. Holographers have another method to reach this goal. They arrange two sets of laser beams at 90-degree angles. They all face a bacteriorhodopsin cube.
After the first set is fired, a special intermediate state, which well call A, is created. When the number of A elements reaches a near-maximum level, scientists then fire the second set of lasers. This causes the A state to switch to a different short-lived structure, which well call B. Soon after, structure B changes into a highly stable format, which well call C. Scientists are really excited about this format because it can remain stable for years.
When they assign the base state to 0 and the B and C to 1, engineers have re-created the binary switching technology. The lasers have the ability to read and write to multiple locations within the bacteriorhodopsin simultaneously; thus this creates faster parallel operations that can be implemented. The engineers have estimated that they can perform operations at a rate of 10MB per second. There are however some problems with this new technology. Writing is not a big problem, but reading is.
Errors can occur because of noise from the laser interfering with the read signal. Another problem is the molecular structure. In order for this to work as high-speed memory these bacterorhodopsin cubes must be uniformly the same. Any variation in the structure could change or distort the data. These problems are being worked and develop by a man named Dr. Robert Birage of Syracuse University. Biology and computers have always been intertwined with each other.
Computers are helping teachers teach the subject, and they are helping researchers to research and make more discoveries at lighting speeds. Biology is also advancing computer technology. We can see this with the new nanotechnology. This kind advancement is not going to slow down anytime soon. Researchers will continue to discover new things in Biology, and will continue to invent faster ways to push the computer systems they use. Computers and Biology Biology 101 10 wk session References: 1. Aubrey, David.
Progressive proteins. Computer Shopper, April 1996. Vol 16n4. P563. Online: SearchBank. 2.
Levin, Carol. High Protein Computers. PC Magazine. May 30, 1995. Vol 14 n10.
P29. Online: SearchBank. 3. Virtual Creatures Teach Biology Without Dissection, http://www.infoseek.com/Content?arn=BW0236- 19980709&qt=biology&lk=noframes&col=NX&kt=A&ak=new s1486. Science Essays.