Programming cells may soon become as easy as programming a computer. Just as computer software designers create programming for computers, scientists have created a programming language that allows them to design DNA-encoded circuits that can give new function to living cells.

This method is easier and faster than the old lab work required to produce custom-made bacteria or other single cell organisms for use in medicine or other applications. Where it used to take three years to design, test and build one biological circuit, with this new method, it would take about a week to design 60 biological circuits.

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Biological engineers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) are the first to develop the new software, using simple computer programming language, that can help them program a cell to perform any function.

Christopher Voigt, a synthetic biologist, a professor of biological engineering at MIT and the study’s lead researcher says,

You use text-based language, just like you’re programming a computer. Then you take that text and you can compile it and it turns into a DNA sequence that you put into the cell, and the circuit runs inside the cell.

The name of the new software is Cello and it has been in development for over ten years. It uses a language based on Verilog, commonly used to program computer chips.

With Cello, instructions can be inputted (like the type of promoter you want to use and what program /circuit you want to run). It will give you the sequence for the DNA plasmid. Plasmids are tiny, double-stranded DNA inside of bacteria than can enter and exit the bacteria genome. These custom plasmids can be used to add external DNA into the genome to create an ideal cell.

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E. coli Bacteria

MIT News states,

To create a version that would work for cells, the researchers designed computing elements such as logic gates and sensors that can be encoded in a bacterial cell’s DNA. The sensors can detect different compounds, such as oxygen or glucose, as well as light, temperature, acidity and other environmental conditions. Users can also add their own sensors. Biggest challenge was designing the 14 logic gates used in the circuits so that they wouldn’t interfere with each other once placed in the complex environment of a living cell.

Currently, the programming is optimized for E. coli but the engineers are working on expanding the language to include other strains of bacteria. Future applications include designing bacterial cells that can produce a cancer drug when a tumor is found and bacteria that can be swallowed to aid in the digestion of lactose. The possibilities are endless.

Cello is unique, in that no special knowledge of genetic engineering is required to use it. Actually, the researchers plan on making the new interface available on the Internet.

Voigt says,

You could be completely naïve as to how any of it works. That’s what’s really different about this. You could be a student in high school and go onto the Web-based server and type out the program you want, and it spits back the DNA sequence.

Nancy Loyan Schuemann

Nancy Loyan Schuemann is a writer specializing in architecture, safes, profiles, histories and a multi-published fiction and non-fiction author and is Nailah, Middle Eastern dancer.

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