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NSF, Industry Group Fund Bio-Based Semiconductor R&D

Biocircuits illustration

(Gerd Altmann, Pixabay)

18 July 2018. A research consortium in the semiconductor industry and National Science Foundation are supporting a series of projects investigating interactions between biology and circuits for data transfer and storage. The Semiconductor Research Corporation and NSF are committing $12 million to the Semiconductor Synthetic Biology or SemiSynBio initiative, funding 8 new research projects at 14 institutions.

SemiSynBio aims to harness the properties of biological functions in nature to break through constraints of traditional silicon-based integrated circuits. “While current capabilities have improved dramatically over the past decades,” says Dawn Tilbury, NSF’s assistant director for engineering in an agency statement, “materials such as silicon have physical constraints that appear to limit computing at very small scales. Bio-based materials and designs suggest intriguing possibilities to overcome these obstacles at lower energy cost.”

Merging biological and semiconductor components are believed to increase storage capacities by 1,000 times and enable storage for 100 years, with much less power than today’s technologies. Semiconductor Research Corp. identifies circuit designs based cytomorphic electronics, or chemical interactions in cells, as one of its top priorities for SemiSynBio. In addition, the group is promoting integration of live cells into conventional integrated circuits for bio-based sensors, actuators, and energy sources, as well as self-assembly of molecular-based circuits as an alternative to lithographic techniques for complex nanoscale components.

Four of the 8 newly funded projects deal with DNA as a data storage medium. These studies include DNA for on-chip storage conducted at University of Illinois in Urbana, random-access DNA storage read through nanoscale filters at Stanford University in California, and memory systems from nucleic acids at Boise State University in Idaho.

Another DNA storage research effort combines labs at University of California in Davis, University of Washington in Seattle, and Emory University in Atlanta, to design read-only memory, or ROM, from DNA that can be accessed programmed, and connected like ROM in today’s computers. That project aims to store information as determined by electrical properties of DNA molecules and based on conductive characteristics of the chemicals making up DNA and other factors.

Three of the funded projects cover transfer of data between bio-based circuits or in networks. A lab at University of Maryland in College Park is studying bio-electronics for memory and communication based on redox functions, defined as gains or losses of oxygen in cells. Another team from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, University of Washington in Seattle, and University of Texas in Austin is investigating neural networking systems created with yeast cells. And a lab at University of Notre Dame in South Bend is looking into collective computing networks fashioned from cardiac muscle cells.

A separate research effort proposes building an automated system for designing large-scale genetic circuits with researchers from MIT, University of Minnesota, and Northeastern University in Boston. This project aims to take standard design specifications and diagrams translated into circuits with living cells. The networks plan to use logic gates based on cas9 enzymes, like those often used in the genome editing technique Crispr, with some 50 gates per cell.

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