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.
Using this language, anyone can write a program for the function they want, such as detecting and responding to certain environmental conditions. They can then generate a DNA sequence that will achieve it.
“It is literally a programming language for bacteria,” says Christopher Voigt, an MIT professor of biological engineering. “You use a text-based language, just like you’re programming a computer. Then you take that text and you compile it and it turns it into a DNA sequence that you put into the cell, and the circuit runs inside the cell.”
In the new software — called Cello — a user first specifies the kind of cell they are using and what they want it to do: for example, sense metabolic conditions in the gut and produce a drug in response. They type in commands to explain how these inputs and outputs should be logically connected, using a computing language called Verilog that electrical engineers have long relied on to design silicon circuits. Finally, Cello translates this information to design a DNA sequence that, when put into a cell, will execute the demands.
The good thing about it is that it’s very simple, without many of the intricacies often encountered in programming.
“You could be completely naive as to how any of it works. That’s what’s really different about this,” Voigt says. “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.”
For now, all these features have been customized for the E. coli bacteria, one of the most common in studies, but researchers are working on expanding the language to other strands of bacteria.
Using this language, they’ve already programmed 60 circuits with different functions, and 45 of them worked correctly the first time they were tested – which is a remarkable achievement. The circuits were also strikingly fast, and the whole process promises to revolutionize DNA engineering. Before, it could take months or years to design such a circuit. Now, it can be done in less than a day.
Dr. Voigt’s team plans to work on several different applications using this approach — bacteria that can be swallowed to aid in digestion of lactose; bacteria that can live on plant roots and produce insecticide if they sense the plant is under attack; and yeast that can be engineered to shut off when they are producing too many toxic byproducts in a fermentation reactor.
What do you think about this rapidly developing revolutionary computer industry? Can it replace drugs and medicine in future? Can it help to cure cancer and AIDS? Will it make a living cell immortal?
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