A new field called biological computation, which marries biology to computer hardware and may one day result in everything from advanced prosthetics to next-generation computers, will be explored in a workshop at Clemson University.
The Jan. 19-20 workshop is co-sponsored by the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Department of Energy and Clemson. Attending the conference will be top scientists from around the world, as well as high-level governmental officials funding this leading-edge research. More than 75 participants are expected at the invitation-only meeting at the Madren Center.
Researchers believe this field will one day have a major impact on the development of neural prosthetics able to artificially stimulate the nervous system to partially restore lost vision, hearing or movement. Other future applications could include robots able to operate in areas dangerous to humans such as space or ocean-floor exploration or next-generation biosensors better able to detect toxins in the environment.
In biological computation research, scientists attempt to unlock the mystery of how cells encode and pass information inside the cell and between cells, and then bring that understanding to the way computers work.
"Pattern recognition, agility, data storage everything from insects to human beings do these things wonderfully well, and our computer systems don't do it nearly as well. Not even as well as simple biological systems," said Clemson's James J. Hickman, workshop organizer.
This workshop will bring together physicists, bioengineers, computer scientists, chemists, neuroscientists, biologists and cell biologists so that they can begin to break down terminology differences and the traditional barriers that exist between different research fields.
For example, harnessing biological computation with genomic research could bring about new possibilities in medicine, said Hickman. "A lot of drug therapy is now just blind luck. But if we understood the pathway of information inside cells and how it worked, drug discovery would be much more efficient."
"This whole field is just getting started," said Hickman. "We're at the same point where they were 50 years ago with the development of the transistor at Bell Labs. Nobody at that time could even begin to envision making a PC. Who knows where the advances from this field will take us in 50 years?"
Hickman, a pioneering researcher whose own work is identified as an early link between biology and silicon circuits, is the new holder of Clemson's Hunter Endowed Chair of Bioengineering.