Microelectronic and biological systems are both expert at accessing, analyzing, and responding to information. However, they use entirely different modalities. Traditional information processing devices receive input in the form of electromagnetic radiation, process the information using electrons, and then transmit output as electromagnetic waves. During the last century, advances in physics enabled the fabrication of microelectronic systems that can perform incredible feats: our devices allow us to see people on different continents; our cars can selfdiagnose their own problems; and autonomous vehicles can navigate distant planets.
Biology does not use electrons and electromagnetic radiation to process and communicate information. Rather biology uses ions (e.g., calcium), small molecules (e.g., neurotransmitters) and macromolecules (e.g., nucleic acids and proteins) to receive, analyze, store and transmit information. Recent advances in biology are resolving the molecular details of this information flow in living systems and this emerging knowledge promises to underpin an industry capable of fabricating biomolecular communication systems that can: “listen” to the chemical communication of biology; discern pathologies for individuals and ecosystems; and initiate responses to restore health.
IBBR research on biomolecular communication systems is focused in two broad areas. First, IBBR research is creating the technologies that enable the fabrication of the component parts and their hierarchical assembly into integrated systems. Because biomolecular systems must be able to engage in the chemical communication of biology, most of the component parts are biofabricated using methods from protein engineering and synthetic biology. Second, IBBR research is generating the capabilities to bridge communication across molecular-electronic modalities. By adapting traditional information processing methodologies, it will be possible to couple biology’s penchant for molecular communication with the speed and power of electronic data processing.