Progressive exaggeration

18 July 2008

If you read the paper by Masahiko Inouye and colleagues at the University of Toyama on their production of the first lengthy chains of double-stranded artificial DNA you wonder how analyst Ruchi Mallya managed to come up with the idea that this stuff might be the future of green IT.

Mallya postulated "a biochip that will make standard computers faster and more energy efficient".

If you read the press release from the American Chemical Society, the publisher of Inouye et al's paper, you begin to see where that idea came from. However, there is a subtle difference in meaning:

"The finding could lead to improvements in gene therapy, futuristic nano-sized computers, and other high-tech advances, [the researchers] say."

The claim on the release is slightly more believable - we're not talking about trying to reinvent conventional computing here. But even that is a stretch from what the researchers themselves claim in the actual paper:

"The artificial DNA might be applied to a future extracellular genetic system with information storage and amplifiable abilities...This type of research is primarily motivated by pure scientific exploration and eventually directed toward biomedical applications."

And in the conclusion:

"...the present molecular framework has a potential for storing genetic information and for application to enzymatic replication directed toward engineered genetics. Furthermore, the artificial DNA may be a superior building scaffold for constructing nanostructures of materials interest because of the stable C-nucleosides against ubiquitous naturally occurring enzymes such as DNase."

There is no mention of computing in the paper, just the application to information storage and in the widest sense possible. I've covered some of the potential applications mentioned by the Toyama team in the earlier blog post. But it's worth noting that the paper does not go into the applications in any detail: it's all about the artificial DNA, how they made it and how it behaves in vitro.

The research is so new, they have barely had time to explore the possibilities of replacing the standard bases in DNA with unnatural variants. They were also careful not to move too far away from structures found in conventional DNA to ensure that it would behave normally. Future work by them and others is likely to see how far you can diverge from the structure that nature evolved.

From the perspective of the ACS, maybe this progressive exaggeration doesn't matter. The paper has received a lot more attention because of the claims made for it rather than the claims made in it. But it's a clear case of how using tiny snippets in information without recourse to the original material can lead to crazy conclusions being drawn.