Computing exponentially faster: Implementing a non-deterministic universal Turing machine using DNA

Andrew Currin, Konstantin Korovin, Maria Ababi, Katherine Roper, Douglas B. Kell, Philip J. Day, Ross D. King

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The theory of computer science is based around universal Turing machines (UTMs): abstract machines able to execute all possible algorithms. Modern digital computers are physical embodiments of classical UTMs. For the most important class of problem in computer science, non-deterministic polynomial complete problems, non-deterministic UTMs (NUTMs) are theoretically exponentially faster than both classical UTMs and quantum mechanical UTMs (QUTMs). However, no attempt has previously been made to build an NUTM, and their construction has been regarded as impossible. Here, we demonstrate the first physical design of an NUTM. This design is based on Thue string rewriting systems, and thereby avoids the limitations of most previous DNA computing schemes: all the computation is local (simple edits to strings) so there is no need for communication, and there is no need to order operations. The design exploits DNA's ability to replicate to execute an exponential number of computational paths in P time. Each Thue rewriting step is embodied in a DNA edit implemented using a novel combination of polymerase chain reactions and site-directed mutagenesis. We demonstrate that the design works using both computational modelling and in vitro molecular biology experimentation: the design is thermodynamically favourable, microprogramming can be used to encode arbitrary Thue rules, all classes of Thue rule can be implemented, and non-deterministic rule implementation. In an NUTM, the resource limitation is space, which contrasts with classical UTMs and QUTMs where it is time. This fundamental difference enables an NUTMto trade space for time, which is significant for both theoretical computer science and physics. It is also of practical importance, for to quote Richard Feynman 'there's plenty of room at the bottom'. This means that a desktop DNA NUTM could potentially utilize more processors than all the electronic computers in the world combined, and thereby outperform the world's current fastest supercomputer, while consuming a tiny fraction of its energy.

Original languageEnglish
Article number20160990
JournalJournal of the Royal Society Interface
Issue number128
Early online date1 Mar 2017
Publication statusPublished - 1 Mar 2017


  • Complexity theory
  • DNA computing
  • Non-deterministic universal Turing machine

Research Beacons, Institutes and Platforms

  • Manchester Institute of Biotechnology


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