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By Kuriko Miyake, IDG News Service

March 7, 2002 | TOKYO - Olympus Optical Co. Ltd. has developed what the company says is the first commercially practical DNA computer that specializes in gene analysis. The computer was developed in conjunction with Akira Toyama, an assistant professor at Tokyo University.

Unlike a conventional microprocessor, which uses electrical impulses and processes information one step at a time, a DNA computer relies on chemical reactions between fragments of DNA. When combined, coded DNA fragments link together to create strands, each one signifying a possible answer to a problem. Further chemical reactions can be used to separate strands and find the desired answer. Because multiple reactions can take place inside a test tube at the same time, the reaction is the equivalent of massively parallel processing.

The pioneer of DNA computing was Leonard Adleman, who successfully applied the method to solving the Hamilton path problem. This has led some people to suggest that DNA computers may eventually succeed silicon-based microprocessors in applications where large amounts of processing power are needed, such as gene analysis, aiding in research of different species in biology, and the diagnosis of various diseases where many calculations are required at once.

The standard manual approach to gene analysis-arranging DNA fragments and observing the chemical reactions-was very time-consuming, says Olympus spokesman Satoshi Ikuta. When DNA computing is applied to gene analysis, what used to take three days can now be done in six hours. DNA computing also allows scientists to observe chemical reactions that occur simultaneously, lowering research costs, says Ikuta.

Olympus says it is the first company to overcome the challenge of building a DNA computer. “The bottleneck was that engineers were required to have expert knowledge in two specific fields,” says Ikuta - information processing engineering and molecular biology, collectively known as genome informatics. To achieve this, Olympus formed a joint venture with Tokyo University’s Toyama a year ago called NovousGene Inc., specializing in genome informatics.

The new computer is divided into two sections: a molecular calculation component and an electronic calculation component. The former calculates DNA combinations of molecules, implements chemical reactions, searches, and pulls out the right DNA results. The latter executes processing programs and analyzes these results. The company will start gene analysis using the DNA computer on a trial basis for a year, and hopes to offer the service on a commercial basis for researchers in 2003.

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