As computer components grow smaller and smaller it becomes more and more difficult to manufacture them by conventional means, meaning the nano-hard-drives of the future are going to come at a cost. So researchers from the University of Leeds in the UK and Tokyo University of Agriculture and Technology are enlisting the help of magnetic bacteria, which they say can be harnessed to build tiny computing components similar to those found in conventional PCs, or even to construct the biological computers of the future.

The bacterium Magnetospirilllum magneticum is a naturally occurring microorganism that lives in underwater environs, using its natural magnetism to swim up and down the Earth’s magnetic field lines in search of oxygen. But when they eat iron, special proteins generate tiny crystals of the mineral magnetite within the bacteria, imbuing them with a tiny piece of one of the more magnetic natural materials on the planet.

By feeding the bacteria iron and manipulating the way they colonize, the researchers think they can essentially grow tiny magnets that could serve as components in the minuscule hard drives of the future. Whereas it’s very difficult to make very small magnets and shape them so that they can serve as memory devices, these proteins and the bacteria in which they reside can be coaxed into doing all the hard work, creating the magnetic material and churning out regularly-shaped blocks of it.

Moreover, the team has been working to produce tiny electrical wires that allow the exchange of information through cell membranes, allowing for nanoscale communication inside of a computer made up of biological cells. Because these “wires”–they’re really more like nano-scale tubes with an electrical resistance that pass through the cell wall–are covered in cell membrane, they are highly biocompatible. That of course throws open the door to all kinds of wild ideas blurring the line between the electro-mechanical and the biological, like biocompatible computers that could aid in human surgery–or even live permanently inside the human body. Somebody get Kurzweil on the line.

[via BBC]