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News feature: Genes online

Making computers from life's building blocks

Whether it's a fresh controversy over designer babies or the continuing progress of Dolly the arthritic sheep, stories from the world of genetics are now hitting the headlines every day.

But we in the world of silicon technology should take special note of developments in this most controversial of sciences, because the fields of biology and computer science are becoming ever more closely linked.

One of the most ambitious learning resources on the web devoted to understanding the science of genetics has just been launched. The BBC's Gene Stories site explores key issues in genetics through interactive quizzes and games.

It promises to examine the impact of this field on health, history and politics and shows some of the ways in which biology and computing might interact in future.

From software to wetware

"There is a convergence between biology and the tools of computer science. Progress in genetics could not have happened without breakthroughs in information technology. For example, the human genome could not have been mapped without computers," said Mike Greenwood, BBC education executive for factual and learning and one of the architects of Gene Stories.

In March the Beeb's developers will launch an interactive section called Court of Opinion, a virtual courtroom with a judge and jury where people can learn about different ethical issues in genetics.

But it's becoming increasingly important for people working in the field of computing to understand genetics, partly because some experts claim that computers made from DNA, the building blocks of life, could replace the silicon chip in the not too-distant future.

Scientists have already created simple computers made from DNA. These simple 'machines' have several key advantages over present day PCs.

Why we are faster than PCs — really

While a desktop PC concentrates on doing one task at a time quickly, billions of DNA computers immersed in a test tube can tackle a problem billions of times over. DNA also stores a massive amount of data in a very small space. It is estimated that DNA has a density roughly 100,000 times greater than the most advanced computer's hard disk.

DNA computing represents the increasingly close collaboration between IT and biology, as it is comprised of a mixture of researchers from both backgrounds.

Professor Lloyd Smith, a researcher in DNA computing at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, agreed that it is increasingly important for scientists from different areas of science to have an understanding of different disciplines.

"If you start out early enough you can have multiple competency in one person," said Smith, contending that offering science students the opportunity to mix-and-match their degrees is particularly important.

Where do we go now?

One area likely to involve a convergence between genetics and computer science in future is materials science, in which researchers are attempting to study the genetics and physical structure of naturally occurring materials to synthetically recreate them in the laboratory.

The Gene Stories website ties in with a season of programmes about genetics, due to be broadcast on BBC television and radio over this year.

Greenwood's team has also organised a series of public debates in major cities around the UK, where the public can quiz local genetics experts.

Although the Gene Stories season of programmes is intended to run for a year, the Beeb says the website is intended to become a permanent feature of BBCi and will be constantly updated with new content.


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