A chip with a nose

(a) Illustration depicting biocell attached to CMOS integrated circuit. (b) Illustration of membrane in pore containing sodium–potassium pumps. Credit: Trevor Finney and Jared Roseman/Columbia Engineering

Living things have worked out a very efficient way to communicate within themselves. They are using energy to power up themselves and energy to transfer and process information. 

This is done using ATP (Adenosine TriPhosphate) for the provision of energy to move ions around and to open and close channels thus regulating the flow of ions. These ions, differently from our way of powering and exchange information in computers, are protons (mostly Ca and K ions -calcium and potassium). In computers we use electrons.

Establishing a communication between a living cell and a chip requires some sort of transformation of these different communications systems.

This is what has been done by Columbia Engineering researchers and reported in an open paper on Nature Communications.

In an experiment they used a living cell to power a chip. Bio-cells were layered on the surface of a CMOS chip. A membrane provided the ATP to power the cell ions pumps and  converted the ions provided by the cells into electron to power the chip basically establishing a communication path between a cell and a chip at molecular level.

The researchers have the goal to create a symbioses between chips and bio cells, or part of them. This would enable to augment the processing capability of a chip with the molecular computation capability typical of a cell.

Here is a way to describe this, as Ken Shepard, the lead researcher in the project, said:

“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”.


Author - Roberto Saracco

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