A team of Stanford University bioengineers have worked out a way to turn genetic material into the equivalent of transistors.
Dubbed the “transcriptor”, the new transistors are a key component behind amplifying genetic logic.
According to Science Codex, researcher Jerome Bonnet said the creation of the transcriptor allows engineers to compute inside living cells. They can record when cells have been exposed to certain external stimuli or environmental factors, or even to turn on and off cell reproduction as needed.
Drew Endy, assistant professor of bioengineering and the paper’s senior author said that biological computers can be used to study and reprogram living systems, monitor environments and improve cellular therapeutics.
The transcriptor controls the flow of a specific protein, RNA polymerase, as it travels along a strand of DNA.
To do this the researchers repurposed a group of natural proteins, called integrases, to gain digital control over the flow of RNA polymerase along DNA, which in turn allowed the team to engineer amplifying genetic logic.
They can now build logic gates that can derive true-false answers to virtually any biochemical question that might be posed within a cell. These are dubbed “Boolean Integrase Logic,” or “BIL gates” (no, really).
Of course, it will be a while before these will run any serious computing jobs. Instead they are probably destined to be limited to a cell, but they are the third and final component of a biological computer that could operate within individual living cells.
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.
In a biological setting, the possibilities for logic are as limitless it makes it possible to test whether a given cell had been exposed to any number of external stimuli — the presence of glucose and caffeine.
BIL gates would allow you to make that determination and to store that information so you could easily identify those which had been exposed and which had not.
It is also possible to connect BIL gates with the team’s biological internet, and it is possible to communicate genetic information from cell to cell to orchestrate the behaviour of a group of cells.
Then there will come the day when your cells are hacked and you are mutated into something less natural.