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Biotech Medicine Science Hardware

Scientists Turn Mammalian Cells Into Complex Biocomputers ( 37

sciencehabit quotes a report from Science Magazine: Computer hardware is getting a softer side. A research team has come up with a way of genetically engineering the DNA of mammalian cells to carry out complex computations, in effect turning the cells into biocomputers. The group hasn't put those modified cells to work in useful ways yet, but down the road researchers hope the new programming techniques will help improve everything from cancer therapy to on-demand tissues that can replace worn-out body parts. To upgrade their DNA "switches," Wong and his colleagues steered clear of transcription factors and instead switched human kidney cell genes on and off using scissor-like enzymes that selectively cut out snippets of DNA. These enzymes, known as DNA recombinases, recognize two target stretches of DNA, each between 30 to 50 or more base pairs long. When a recombinase finds its target DNA stretches, it cuts out any DNA in between, and stitches the severed ends of the double helix back together. To design genetic circuits, Wong and his colleagues use the conventional cellular machinery that reads out a cell's DNA, transcribes its genes into RNA, and then translates the RNA into proteins. This normal gene-to-protein operation is initiated by another DNA snippet, a promoter, that sits just upstream of a gene. When a promoter is activated, a molecule called RNA polymerase gets to work, marching down the DNA strand and producing an RNA until it reaches another DNA snippet -- a termination sequence -- that tells it to stop. To make one of their simplest circuits, Wong's team inserted four extra snippets of DNA after a promoter. The main one produced green fluorescent protein (GFP), which lights up cells when it is produced. But in front of it was a termination sequence, flanked by two snippets that signaled the DNA recombinase. Wong and his team then inserted another gene in the same cell that made a modified recombinase, activated only when bound to a specific drug; without it, the recombinase wouldn't cut the DNA. When the promoter upstream of the GFP gene was activated, the RNA polymerase ran headfirst into the termination sequence, stopped reading the DNA, and didn't produce the fluorescent protein. But when the drug was added, the recombinase switched on and spliced out the termination sequence that was preventing the RNA polymerase from initiating production of GFP. Voila, the cell lit up. The approach Wong and his colleagues used worked so well that they were able to build 113 different circuits, with a 96.5% success rate. The study has been published in the journal Nature.
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Scientists Turn Mammalian Cells Into Complex Biocomputers

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  • I see in the distant future, we will eventually reverse engineer the genetic 'object code', to create the source code (I think ID is much more likely than random beneficial mutation); and I wouldn't be surprised if it looks similar to object orientated techniques we currently use.
    Imagine having the source code to life, where you can tinker at a keyboard and 'print out' new DNA. The implications are both scary (eg the ability to create super bugs, or eliminate certain classes of people), to being able to cur

    • When we get life's source code, we'll find that cancer and GOTO are one in the same.
    • by quenda ( 644621 )

      I think we already know that God writes Spaghetti Code beyond our worst nightmares.

  • Imagine a Beowulf Cluster of these.

  • He called it! (Score:5, Interesting)

    by sheramil ( 921315 ) on Wednesday March 29, 2017 @01:51AM (#54133027)
    Greg Bear should sue. []

  • by TimothyHollins ( 4720957 ) on Wednesday March 29, 2017 @05:52AM (#54133459)

    Reading TFA explains my confusion when reading the summary.

    1. Nothing in the summary is new, nor even remotely new. Splicing via recombinase has been done a long time ago, and the biology howto isn't anything novel either.
    2. The article is actually titled "Large-scale design of robust genetic circuits with multiple inputs and outputs for mammalian cells". The novel component is that the authors claim their circuitry construction is easier and more robust than previous approaches that required multi-layered edits for the same effects. Whether or not this is true I cannot say. The validation experiments are a bunch of these edits, one part creating logical circuits and one part creating on/off switches for stuff biologists like, such as CRISPR-Cas9, or a whole slew of fluorescent proteins (they look great in a microscope).
    3. The general take-away is that gene-editing has become so easy and cheap that these studies and uses are becoming feasible.

  • But does it run Linux?

  • They were so preoccupied with whether or not they could [] that they didn't stop to think if they should.

  • this... what could possibly go wrong?

A committee is a group that keeps the minutes and loses hours. -- Milton Berle