DNA computing and the end of natural evolution

DNA Molecule Arrangement in the Chip (from http://dnacomputing.design.officelive.com)
DNA Molecule Arrangement in the Chip (from http://dnacomputing.design.officelive.com)

Read an article the other day in the Economist on how researchers are now performing computation using DNA.  The intent is to someday come up with small biologic computers that can be inserted into cells/organisms which can cure or kill cells that are in trouble and leave the rest alone.

Computing soup?!

Research in the area of molecular computing has been going on since 1994, when a scientist created a DNA based solution to compute an answer to a specified traveling salesman problem.

In those days the answer was derived from running a centrifuge on the end-product soup of DNA strings and extracting the answer from the resultant gel matrix.

Molecular computing redefined

Since then, there has been significant improvements in DNA computing.  Currently, most are based on DNA strand displacement.  Today’s molecular computers consists of free floating DNA or RNA snippets.  A logic gate is made up of two strands, one of which is the “computational logic” and the other an “output signal”.  In addition to the logic gate there is another DNA/RNA strand which is an “input signal” or almost like input data.  Input signals are matched up to a specific logic gate and cause the output signal snippet to be detached creating yet another input signal for other computations cascading down the pipeline.

DNA-RNA based digital logic

2-bit_ALU (from wikimedia.org)
2-bit_ALU (from wikimedia.org)

By doing all this, researchers have been able to create DNA snippets that perform various logical computing operations such as AND, OR and NOT logic gates and producing the signal pathways to connect them in a computational sequence or “program”.

The molecular automata all looks like elementary electronic circuits made up of base level logic gates logic to me but just as in electronic digital logic it seems to gets the job done.  One gets a computation done by adding 1000’s of copies of the logic gates and input sequences together and some how assaying the end result many hours later.

Using these capabilities, they have created DNA programs made up of 74 different DNA strands that could calculate the square roots of 4 digit numbers.

Next, they tied an artificial neuron to fire when input signals hit a certain level together with a soup of 114 different DNA strands to do rudimentary pattern recognition.  They used then “programed” their DNA neural net to recognize Yes/No answers provided by different  scientists.  The report said that the neural net, was able to get the correct answer every time but took 8 hours to perform the calculations.

There are a couple of groups working on a programming language and a simulator tool for DNA or molecular computing called the DNA Strand Displacement (DSD) tool.

The report went on to say how another set of researchers were fabricating synthetic genes which when introduced into cell could be used to trick the cell into producing the cellular computer itself.

The end of natural evolution?

The end game for all this is to create a computational device that can somehow be injected into tissue cells which would identify “sick” cells then cure or destroy them.

A couple of years ago, I was waiting in a doctor’s office for something or another and penned a poem on the end of human evolution involving ECC combined with DNA.  (No, you can’t see the poem.)

You see in computers today there is a computational device called an ECC or error correcting code which is a circuit and a special code word that can be appended to a sequence of data that together can then be used to correct for errors in transmission or storage of that data.

Once someone can build digital logic out of DNA-RNA, it’s not a big leap to have build an ECC circuit.  Once the circuit is ready, anyone could potentially have their DNA modified to have an appropriate ECC codeword appended to it.  With DNA + ECC code word and an active ECC circuit in the cell, it’s quite possible than any single, double, or triple mutation could be detected and fixed inside a cell.  Of course ECC can go beyond triple error detection if needed.  Also, Reed-Solomon and other erasure codes can even go much beyond that.

After such a device was incorporated into the human genome, it would seem to signal the end to natural evolution, at least for humans.



Punctuated equilibrium for business success

Finch evolution (from http://rst.gsfc.nasa.gov/Sect20/A12d.html)
Finch evolution (from http://rst.gsfc.nasa.gov/Sect20/A12d.html)

Coming out of the deep recession of 2007-2009 I am struck by how closely business success during recession looks like what ecologists call punctuated equilibrium.  As Wikipedia defines it, punctuated equilibria, “… is a model for discontinuous tempos of change (in) the process of speciation and the deployment of species in geological time.”

This seems to me to look just like strategic inflection points.  That is punctuated equilibrium is a dramatic, discontinuous change in a market or an environment which brings about great opportunity for gain or loss.  Such opportunities can significantly increase business market share, if addressed properly. But if handled wrong, species and/or market share can vanish with surprising speed.

Galapagos Finches

I first heard of punctuated equilibrium from the Pultizer prize-winning book The Beak of the Finch by Jonathan Weiner which documented a study done by two ecologists on Galapagos island finches over the course of a decade or so.  Year after year they went back and mapped out the lives and times of various species of finches on the island.  After a while they came to the conclusion that they were not going to see any real change in the finches during their study, the successful species were holding there own and the unsuccessful species were barely hanging on.  But then something unusual occurred.

As I recall, there was a great drought on the islands which left the more usual soft-skinned nut finch food unavailable.  During this disaster, a segment of finches that hadn’t been doing all that well on the islands but had a more powerful beak was able to rapidly gain population and there was evidence that finch speciation was actually taking place.  It turns out this powerful beak which was a liability in normal times was better able to break open these harder nuts that were relatively more plentiful during drought but normally unavailable.

Recessionary Business  Success

Similar to finches, certain business characteristics that in better times might be consider disadvantageous, can reap significant gains during recession.  Specifically,

  • Diverse product & service portfolio –  multiple products and services that appeal to different customer segments/verticals/size can help by selling to differing business some of which may be suffering  and some who may do ok during a recession.
  • Diverse regional revenue sources – multiple revenue streams coming from first, developing and third world localities around the world can help by selling to regions which can be less impacted by any economic catastrophe.
  • Cash savings – sizable savings accounts can help a company continue to spend on the right activities that will help them emerge from recession much stronger  than competitors forced to cut spending to conserve cash.
  • Marketing discipline – understanding how marketing directly influences revenue can help companies can better identify and invest in those activities that maximize revenue per marketing spend.
  • Development discipline – understanding how to develop products that deliver customer value can help companies better identify and invests in those activities that generate more revenue per R&D $.

Probably other characteristics that were missed, but these will suffice. For example consider cash savings, a large cash horde is probably a poor investment when times are good.  Also, diverse product and regional revenue streams may be considered unfocused and distracting when money is flooding in from main product lines sold in first world regions.  But when times are tough in most areas around the globe or most business verticals, having diverse revenue sources that span the whole globe and/or all business segments can be the difference between life and death.

The two obvious exceptions here are marketing and development discipline.  It’s hard for me to see a potential downside to doing these well.  Both obviously require time, effort and resources to excel in, but the payoffs are present good times and bad.

I am often amazed by the differences in how companies react to adversity.  Recession is just another, more pressing example of this.   Recessions, like industry transformation are facts of life today, failing to plan for them is a critical leadership defect that can threaten business long-term survival.