Borrowing from Electronics to Build Circuits in Living Cells

University of Washington

May, 2017
Borrowing from Electronics to Build Circuits in Living Cells
This is an artist's impression of connected CRISPR-dCas9 NOR gates. Credit: University of Washington

A team of engineers at the University of Washington have bypassed cellular evolution and instead mimicked NOR gates to craft a cellular system that paves the way for scientists to harness the potential of cells as living computers.

NOR gates, commonly used in electronics, take two inputs and only pass on a positive signal if both inputs are negative. Instead of using silicon, the synthetic biology team, led by UW electrical engineering professor Eric Klavins, utilized DNA inside yeast cells. The resulting circuits are the largest to date in eurkaryotic cells which contain a nucleus and other structures that enable complex behaviors, and mimic human cells.

“While implementing simple programs in cells will never rival the speed or accuracy of computation in silicon, genetic programs can interact with the cell’s environment directly,” said Klavins. “For example, reprogrammed cells in a patient could make targeted, therapeutic decisions in the most relevant tissues, obviating the need for complex diagnostics and broad spectrum approaches to treatment.”

Each of the seven parallel cellular NOR gates consist of a gene with three programmable segments of DNA, with two acting as inputs and the remaining as the output. Utilizing CRISPR-Cas9, a relatively new technology, as a molecular gatekeeper, they were able to target those specific sequences inside the cell.

The size of this study allows circuits to start executing useful behaviors such as processing information, performing calculations, and opting on the correct response. Researchers imagine applying this technique to create engineered immune cells that are able to detect and respond to cancer markers, along with a multitude of other health-improving innovations.

To learn more about this research, click here.

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