Engineering Breakthroughs


Leonard Adleman is a recipient of the A. M. Turing award and is a computer science and molecular biology professor at the University of Southern California. Wikimedia Commons


Editor’s Note: Aaron Feldman is the 2016 winner of The Norman E. Alexander Award for Excellence in Jewish Student Writing. He won a national contest seeking essays on a significant advancement in science, medicine or technology by a living or deceased Jewish-American. Writers were asked to explain how this innovation impacts lives and why it is meaningful to them. Aaron won $500 and a commemorative medal. The contest was sponsored by the Jewish-American Hall of Fame and The Jewish Week Media Group.

A pinch of DNA, weighing but six grams, contains over 80 times more information than the most complex computer. DNA is the building block of our existence, determining the proteins that express our genetics. So I was fascinated by Jewish scientist Leonard Adleman’s experiments using DNA, rather than integrated circuits, for computation. He wanted to use the base pairs of adenine-thymine and guanine-cytosine to represent the zeroes and ones used for data storage and calculation in computers. His first proof-of-concept experiment in 1994 proved successful. Using various sequences of DNA as encoded pathways, Adleman conquered the previously unsolved Hamiltonian Path computation problem. Adleman, the father of biocomputing, had essentially created an entirely new field by blending molecular biology and computer engineering.

He harnessed nature’s code for life, which it has been perfecting for millions of years, to further our modern society’s technological capabilities. Biocomputing can perform calculations that are too large for current computers. Moreover, because DNA can replicate, biocomputers could actually grow, providing increasing computational ability with each DNA replication.

Adleman’s work can also be expanded by using DNA as so-called “doctors in a cell.” These molecular biocomputers could regulate certain cellular processes, preventing and treating diseases by releasing small quantities of drugs within the body.

Adleman’s work inspires me because of its novelty and huge potential. He explores the question of life, speculating that human beings are intelligent, adaptive biological computers. He merges seemingly disjointed fields with bold, futuristic experiments. As Adleman points out in his famous quote, “Biology and computer science — life and computation — are related. I am confident that at their interface great discoveries await those who seek them.”

Incredibly, not only did Adleman invent biocomputing, but he has advanced chemistry, computer science, mathematics and even AIDS research. He is a true Renaissance man who defines the modern era. Like Adleman, I too am interested in many subjects: computer science and biology, but also writing, history and piano playing. I remember working on my computer one night, switching between developing a computer program and drafting a speech on organ donation while listening to the Rachmaninoff piano piece I was learning.

As I get older and college applications near, I have been told to focus on only a few of my interests. However, I am more than just a science guy or a writer. Adleman managed to succeed in many areas, and I too wish to continue learning and exploring my many deep interests. I can’t narrow myself down because each of these topics is a part of what I love and who I am. Just like Leonard Adleman, who sits in his office for hours with nothing but blackboard and chalk, I love to think … and to only think in one way, about one topic, would not let me experience the world of learning and knowledge to my full capacity.