Stanford Researchers Create A Biological Computer
March 31, 2013

Biological Transistors Could Revolutionize The Future Of Medicine

Brett Smith for - Your Universe Online

Researchers at Stanford University have developed a basic computer using genetic material, according to a report in the journal Science.

The team said that the tiny biological transistors they have developed could potentially revolutionize medicine in the future.

"We're going to be able to put computers into any living cell you want," lead author Drew Endy explained to the San Jose Mercury News. "We're not going to replace the silicon computers. We're not going to replace your phone or your laptop. But we're going to get computing working in places where silicon would never work."

Endy, who came to Stanford from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, co-founded the BioBricks Foundation, which supports free-to-use standards and technologies for engineering biology.

"Any place you want a little bit of logic, a little bit of computation, a little bit of memory -- we're going to be able to do that," said Endy.

For example, gene-based biological computers could determine if a certain toxin is present inside a cell or react to treatment within an individual cell.

Traditional transistors that are found in conventional computers control the flow of electrons in the form of the zeros and ones of binary code, the most basic machine language. Arranging multiple transistors together forms something called a "logic gate," which serves as the basic building block of all computations performed by computers around the world.

The Stanford genetic transistors, which they've dubbed "transcriptors," use enzymes to manage the flow of RNA proteins along a strand of DNA, similar to the way a computer would use silicon transistors. Using about 150 letters of genetic code, the transcriptors could make a yes-or-no decision, such as determining if mercury is present within the cell.

"The first things that can be done are more precise biosensing. You could see if a cell has been exposed to different combinations of chemicals, and have a specific signal only when a certain pattern of interest shows up, say glucose and caffeine," co-author Jerome Bonnet told The Guardian. "In the longer term we hope biocomputers can be used to study and reprogram living systems and improve cellular therapeutics.”

Cellular therapeutics is a field of medicine that uses genomics and cell biology to regenerate and replace damaged tissues and organs.

Transcriptors are the third and final component in a 10-year drive to the biological computer. Last year, the team developed the other two core components of a computer: a method to store rewriteable data within DNA and a mechanism for sending genetic data from cell to cell.

Timothy Lu, a researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is also working on genome-based computers. He said the technology holds great potential for the future. He sees the ability to program cells to automatically scan for chemical signals of cancer.

"These cells could light up, and you could easily see whether the cell has computed [if] you may have early signs of cancer or not," he told NPR.

He adds that these cells might be able to produce a drug, or target the cancer directly.