Biocomputing researcher awarded the Bucke Prize


By Communications Staff
Thursday, March 21, 2002
Dr. Lila Kari
Exploring the possibilities of using DNA as a programming language to solve very complicated problems has earned University of Western Ontario computer science professor Lila Kari this year's Florence Bucke Prize.

The prize, intended to recognize some of the best research in the Faculty of Science, is in memory of Florence Bucke (BA'26) who taught school in Fort Erie until 1971.

When Kari found out that she had won the prize, she recalled the first Bucke lecture she attended back in 2000, given by chemist Dr. Robert Lipson. "He was a fantastic person, I liked the talk very much but winning that prize seemed so unobtainable." Eligibility for the prize spans all departments within the Faculty of Science.

Kari will present a public formal lecture based on her work entitled "How Does Nature Compute," on April 9 at 7:30 p.m. in Room 3345, Somerville House where she will be presented with the prize.

Biocomputing is a field that is only seven years old. "Actually you have to somehow twist around the tools that are available in the molecular biology lab and try to make them to simulate arithmetic and logic operations," says Kari.

One way to accomplish this is by incorporating the technique of genetic recombination where strands of DNA are cut and each are spliced to neighbouring strands. At first glance, "this apparently doesn't have any connection with computation," says Kari, "however, we were able to prove theoretically that you can use this single operation to simulate any operation in any electronic computer. So this means that in theory, you can build a general purpose DNA computer." The next challenge is to transfer theory from the test tube into unicellular organisms.

Even though the computers using DNA will be very small, the problems they are designed to solve are on a massive scale. "If you have a problem and solving it with an electronic computer will take ten thousand years," says Kari, "You can do it with DNA computing in three weeks."

Kari, a graduate of the University of Turku, Finland, first came to Western in 1993 as a visiting professor, she decided to stay and by 2000 was promoted to the position of Associate Professor in the Computer Science department. "Actually my field of expertise …is part of theoretical computer science called formal languages [which] deal with letters and strings of letters." Kari adds. "I guess in retrospect it seems natural to use this model in DNA computing because you can think of DNA as a string of letters."

"It's unbelievable actually that some of the results that we obtained in purely theoretical computer science now have relevance for biology."

For more information about Dr. Kari and biocomputing research

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