A MICROBE that thrives in one of the most inhospitable environments on Earth might just help engineers to build the first quantum computers.
The highly organised building skills of a protein manufactured by the microbe, which lives in scalding, sulphurous geothermal springs, has allowed NASA scientists to create regular arrays of "quantum dots".
A quantum dot is a speck of gold or semiconductor material just a few nanometres across that can confine an electron in a space so small that its quantum behaviour wins out over its classical behaviour. Quantum dots like these could form the basis of minute chemical sensors, because the electrons ' quantum states change when molecules bind to the dots. But there are potentially more exotic applications over the horizon : quantum computers.
Physicists believe that the quantum states of the electrons can be used as quantum bits - or qubits - for encoding data in a superfast quantum computer. Because the electron trapped in a quantum dot can be in several quantum states at once, a group of them could be harnessed to carry out many calculations simultaneously.