Programming Language For DNA Could Herald In New Medical Breakthroughs
September 30, 2013

Programming Language For DNA Could Herald In New Medical Breakthroughs

Brett Smith for - Your Universe Online

When computer programmers want to create a function that will send an email or download a website, they can write code using a programming language to do so.

Now, a team led by researchers at the University of Washington is devising a programming language for DNA – opening the door to the creation of biochemical functions that could deliver drugs or detect disease within a cell.

According to a newly published report in Nature Nanotechnology, the genetic programming language is designed to replicate natural biological processes that are driven by complex molecular networks.

Scientists and professors have used and taught about chemical reaction networks for decades using a language of equations that describes how chemicals behave. Engineers at the University of Washington took this notion to the next level and are trying to use it to write programs that direct individual molecules.

“We start from an abstract, mathematical description of a chemical system, and then use DNA to build the molecules that realize the desired dynamics,” said study author Georg Seelig, a UW assistant professor of electrical engineering. “The vision is that eventually, you can use this technology to build general-purpose tools.”

When a biologist or chemist creates a molecular network using conventional means, the process is complex, cumbersome and usually made for a singular purpose. The UW engineers said they wanted to build a framework that provides much more flexibility. Seelig compared the new direction to using a computer programming language.

“I think this is appealing because it allows you to solve more than one problem,” Seelig said. “If you want a computer to do something else, you just reprogram it. This project is very similar in that we can tell chemistry what to do.”

The idea isn’t completely out of left field, as living organisms already have complex networks of molecules that maintain homeostasis and perform metabolic processes. Scientists now are looking for ways to build synthetic systems that mimic these natural biological functions. To achieve this, a system is needed that could allow for varying, specific functions.

The engineers said the system isn’t quite ready for use in the medical field, but said their framework could lead to making molecules that self-assemble within cells and serve as a kind of biochemical sensor. These sensors could be embedded in a cell and then respond as programmed to a stimulus or situation.

To support their effort, Seelig and Eric Klavins, a UW associate professor of electrical engineering, recently received $2 million from the National Science Foundation as part of a national molecular programming initiative. The new language will be created in support of that larger initiative, Seelig said.

"Advances in the computer and information sciences drive progress in all areas of science, engineering and education, which positively impacts the US economy, furthers national priorities and bolsters our overall quality of life," NSF Acting Director Cora Marrett said regarding the award. "America's future depends on strong and sustained US government support in this area. NSF is proud to fund this next round of Expeditions awards, and in supporting fundamental research, to continue its tradition of enabling the nation to maintain its competitive advantage in information technology."


Image Below: An example of a chemical program. Here A, B and C are different chemical species. Credit: Yan Liang/