Japan puts on surge to narrow the West's big lead in biocomputers

Today's computers are mere child's play for some Japanese scientists who are working on the ultimate system: the biocomputer. Using genetic engineering, they hope to duplicate the super-efficient chemical methods the human body uses to process and transmit complex information.

Electronics manufacturers like Hitachi, Fujitsu, and Sharp are leading the Japanese race to be first in the world to produce the key component: the biochip.

The chip is expected to lead to miniaturization of computers with a memory capacity up to 1 billion times that of conventional integrated circuits. It could have an operating speed 100 million times faster than the current computer mainstay, the 64K RAM (a thumbnail-sized chip that can store 64,000 characters of information). The biochip's other main attraction is that it relies on chemical reactions and does not need any electricity.

Experts say the biochip, even if it can be built - and plenty think it cannot - is at least a decade away. Nevertheless, the potential benefits are so tantalizing that the Japanese believe they can't ignore it. Several leading firms have announced plans to build pilot facilities for producing the molecular membrane they hope will form the basis of a successful biochip. But no one is yet willing to say when Japan's first biocomputer might be ready to start processing information.

The biochip development is one of the most ambitious projects in a steadily accelerating drive by Japan for a major role in bioscience. Japan has been outstanding in some agricultural sectors, especially fermentation technology, but today it is mainly playing catch-up ball.

The Japanese have lagged behind the United States and Europe in genetic engineering, particularly in the study of DNA recombinant technology.

''We are catching up, but we are still a couple of years behind,'' says Wataru Yamaya, general manager of the Life Science Department at Mitsubishi Chemical Industries Ltd., which is currently returning an average 10 percent of its annual income to basic research and development.

The US has had a big advantage over Japan for several reasons, Yamaya says. ''The development of new biotechnology has been made easier in the United States by a very close linkage between academics and entrepreneurs. There is a mobility of employment between the two, as well as encouragement for the individual with a good idea to strike out on his own.

''This doesn't happen in Japan. If a junior in some research laboratory had a good idea and tried to get financial backing for it on his own, he would be severely criticized by the scientific community as a whole.''

The result has been, says Yamaya, that Japan has been very weak in pure science, which requires more individual genius. But it has been very successful in industrial application of basic scientific discoveries, which requires more of a group effort.

The US spends four times as much money as Japan on pure scientific research, while US government's share of the bill is twice as large, Yamaya asserts. Much heavier spending on military research, which leads to important civilian spinoffs, also helps American research.

Changes are taking place in Japan, however. In the past, few companies employed specifically designated bioscien-tists. Now they are asking top schools to train people in this area. Whereas there was a rush into the medical profession a decade ago, now biochemical courses are among the most popular at major universities.

Ako Etori, editor of Nikkei Science, the Japanese equivalent of Scientific American, comments: ''By nature, we Japanese are very hesitant to challenge new things that no one has touched before. That's why the bulk of the public and private spending in R&D has gone into applied, not basic, science. But there are signs finally that people in government and business are realizing the Japanese weakness and working to overcome it.''

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