Humans have long been adding technology to their body to improve health, like pacemakers for example. But scientists have recently announced the creation of a bit of technology from a living system — they’ve made a computer in a cell.
Stanford University bioengineers made a transistor — the “transcriptor” — out of genetic material (DNA and RNA).
“Biological computers can be used to study and reprogram living systems, monitor environments and improve cellular therapeutics,” Drew Endy, assistant professor of bioengineering and senior author of the paper published in the journal Science with the lead author Jerome Bonnet, said in a statement.
As the San Jose Mercury News explained further, it could detect things like diseases and toxins and be programmed to kill cells that are multiplying out of control.
While in electronics a transistor would control electrons, the “transcriptor” controls the protein RNA polymerase along a strand of DNA.
Endy explained that the researchers “repurposed” proteins called integrases that could control the flow of RNA polymerase as it moved along DNA. This then allowed the team to create “amplifying genetic logic.”
Here’s more from the press release on how the biological computer was developed:
Using transcriptors, the team has created what are known in electrical engineering as logic gates that can derive true-false answers to virtually any biochemical question that might be posed within a cell.
They refer to their transcriptor-based logic gates as “Boolean Integrase Logic,” or “BIL gates” for short.
Transcriptor-based gates alone do not constitute a computer, but they are the third and final component of a biological computer that could operate within individual living cells.
Despite their outward differences, all modern computers, from ENIAC to Apple, share three basic functions: storing, transmitting and performing logical operations on information.
Last year, Endy and his team made news in delivering the other two core components of a fully functional genetic computer. The first was a type of rewritable digital data storage within DNA. They also developed a mechanism for transmitting genetic information from cell to cell, a sort of biological Internet.
It all adds up to creating a computer inside a living cell.
Here’s more of a visual explanation from Endy:
Endy told the Mercury News that someday such computers will be able to go inside any living cell.
“Any place you want a little bit of logic, a little bit of computation, a little bit of memory — we’re going to be able to do that,” Endy said.
The university press released included study co-author Monica Ortiz saying “the potential applications are limited only by the imagination of the researcher.”
The biological computer described in the journal funded by the National Science Foundation and the Townshend Lamarre Foundation finalizes 10 years of research, the Mercury News pointed out.
Here’s a comic created by the university to help explain the idea as well:
Read more details about the study on Stanford’s website here.