May 9, 2012 at 2:23 PM ET
Itsy-bitsy, super-speedy computers of the future may be grown with bacteria, according to researchers who’ve already harnessed a magnet-making microbe to start building hard-drive components.
The little living factories may come in handy as the computer industry races to build smaller and smaller components at the nanoscale for supercomputers the size of a pinhead.
We’ve already seen a hard drive that stores a bit of data with just 12 atoms and a four-atom-wide wire that could get information in and out of quantum bits in tomorrow’s quantum computers.
Researchers at the United Kingdom’s University of Leeds and Japan’s Tokyo University of Technology have focused their attention on an aquatic microbe that eats iron to create tiny magnets.
Magnetospirillum magneticum swim following Earth’s magnetic field, a trick they are able to do because of an iron diet. When they eat iron, “proteins inside their bodies interact with it to produce tiny crystals of the mineral magnetite,” the BBC explains.
The research team replicated the behavior going on inside the bacteria on the outside of the cell wall, making the magnetic material available for hard drives, according the University of Leeds. More details are provided in university press release:
In a process akin to potato-printing on a much smaller scale, this protein is attached to a gold surface in a checkerboard pattern and placed in a solution containing iron.
At a temperature of 80°C, similarly-sized crystals of magnetite form on the sections of the surface covered by the protein. The team are now working to reduce the size of these islands of magnets, in order to make arrays of single nanomagnets. They also plan to vary the magnetic materials that this protein can control.
If all goes according to plan, the university adds, these nanomagnets will be able to hold one bit of information.
To get the data in and out of such a tiny hard drive will require a tiny wire. Fortunately, project collaborator Masayoshi Tanaka from the Tokyo University of Agriculture and Technology has used a different protein to create these wires.
The lab-grown wires are made of electricity-conducting quantum dots that are encased in fat molecules.
“It is possible to tune these biological wires to have a particular electrical resistance,” Tanaka said in the news release.
“In the future, they could be grown connected to other components as part of an entirely biological computer.”
The research is described in two papers published in the journal Small.
John Roach is a contributing writer for msnbc.com. To learn more about him, check out his website and follow him on Twitter. For more of our Future of Technology series, watch the featured video below.