Scientists have built a DNA computer to play tic-tac-toe. MAYA, the DNA computer, is the brainchild of Milan Stojanovic, from Columbia University, and Darko Stefanovic of the University of New Mexico.
This was announced both by the Baltimore Sun in "A twist on artificial intelligence: DNA" and by Knight Ridder Newspapers in "Scientists build DNA-powered tic-tac-toe game."
Here are some excerpts from the Baltimore Sun story.
Nobody who sees MAYA would mistake it for a traditional computer or video game, Stojanovic said, chuckling. More glassware than Game Boy, the board consists of nine wells, arranged in the classic three-by-three pattern. Snippets of custom-designed DNA float in each well. These, says the scientist, are the secret to MAYA's smarts: The strands are crafted to anticipate each possible move a player can make.
"Now, let's say you want to play," Stojanovic begins. Players first select from a series of test tubes, each containing DNA designated for a specific square. Then they dribble the tube's contents into all nine wells, not just the one they intended to mark. As the strands chemically combine, one of the squares will gradually glow green. This is MAYA's move.
To simplify the experiment, the scientists have set ground rules. MAYA always gets to go first and is always assumed to pick the middle square. Humans, meanwhile, must select as their first move either the upper left-hand corner or the square below. After that, anything goes.
Of course, as tic-tac-toe logicians know, these restrictions ensure that MAYA can't lose -- and that human players quickly grow bored.
Let's turn away to Knight Ridder Newspapers for another angle.
Although the project may sound trivial, scientists say DNA computers have a serious purpose. And, given DNA's proven ability to control complex biological processes, DNA computers may someday have real power.
Initial funding for the tic-tac-toe work came from NASA, which is interested in molecular diagnosis and treatment for astronauts on extended space flights or expeditions to Mars.
[Note: The University of New Mexico adds here that the two professors received a $450,000 three year award to research molecular computing by the newly established program QuBiC (Quantum and Biologically Inspired Computing) from the National Science Foundation.]
Leonard Adleman, a biologist at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, acknowledged that biological computers cannot equal electronic machines in rapid calculations or storing huge databases. However, he predicted DNA computing will eventually have practical applications, such as medical research and therapy.
DNA molecules "represent an untapped legacy of 3 billion years of evolution, and there is great potential in their further exploration," he declared.
More information about MAYA will be available in the September issue of Nature Biotechnology.
You also can read a previous item on "DNA Computing."
And if you have extra time, here is a place to play tic-tac-toe.
Sources: Michael Stroh, The Baltimore Sun, August 18, 2003; Robert S. Boyd, Knight Ridder Newspapers, August 18, 2003
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