NSF Career award will support DNA computing research

Red and orange illustration of a vertical double helix representing human DNA.
First invented in 1994, DNA computers use DNA instead of electronics to process information (image by Alex Sholom on iStock).

Dominic Scalise, assistant professor in WSU’s Gene and Linda Voiland School of Chemical Engineering and Bioengineering, has received a National Science Foundation Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) award for his work in developing DNA-powered computing.

The prestigious five-year grants are intended to provide research support to young faculty beginning their careers who have the potential to serve as academic role models in research and education.

As part of the approximately $500,000 award, Scalise is working to develop a robust, DNA computer that can be readily programmed to execute several tasks.

Closeup of Dominic Scalise
Dominic Scalise

First invented in 1994, DNA computers use DNA instead of electronics to process information. Because they run on DNA, the computers have the potential to integrate directly with materials where the metals and materials of traditional computing wouldn’t work.

The novel technology could someday revolutionize computing in fields such as intelligent medicine, robotics, or biosensing. Researchers envision that DNA programming could even someday be used to reconfigure or self-repair matter. In nature, DNA is frequently used in such a manner — from caterpillars that transform into butterflies to creatures that regrow damaged limbs.

“Biochemical computers can directly program biological and non-biological forms of matter to grow, heal, reconfigure, and replicate,” said Scalise. “Biology proves that there’s nothing fundamental stopping us from doing that. It’s not a question of whether these tasks can be executed with molecules, but rather how long it will take humans to master the art of programming molecules.”

While the field holds promise, synthetic DNA circuits currently have several limitations. Most of them have only enough energy — a power supply — to complete one round of computation.

“This is analogous to an electronic computer that dies after every time you press a single key,” he said.

Additionally, each DNA circuit can also only perform a single dedicated task, and developing a computer program for each new task requires developing an entirely new DNA-based computer, which can take years. Scalise compares this to the early days of electronic computing when no software existed. Instead, computing was done literally by plugging and unplugging hardware.

As part of the grant, Scalise aims to develop an easily programmable DNA computer that, like electronics-based computers, can do any task. His lab is also working to create a “power supply” for the computer — DNA reactions that can replenish chemical reactants and sustain the biochemical computers to run for extended periods. Scalise is mentoring two PhD candidates, Natalie Kallish and Kutay Sesli, to perform these experiments. The project also calls for growing the number of people studying in the nascent field, which only includes about 1,000 people.

Scalise co-founded an international grassroots team of researchers called the Molecular Programming Society to develop the first comprehensive textbook in the field and is planning to develop course modules based around this textbook.

In the case of computing with electronics, computing pioneers such as Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace were thinking and writing about computing in the early 1800s, a century before electronic computers could be built. It wasn’t until several generations later that computer scientists such as Alan Turing and Grace Hopper in the 1930s to early 1950s had the chance to see the dawn of computing that Lovelace envisioned.

“We need to accelerate the field,” he said. “The question for me in the field of molecular computing is are we in the Ada Lovelace generation or are we in the Alan Turing and Grace Hopper generation that can actually start to do it? I don’t know the answer, but that’s where the motivation is coming from.”

Scalise holds a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from University of California, Berkeley, and a PhD in chemical and biomolecular engineering from John Hopkins University. Before joining WSU in 2022, he was a postdoctoral researcher at Caltech.

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