A batch of beer that brews itself? Water that adjusts its own pH? A completely organic carbon monoxide detector? With bacterial DNA circuitry, such things are now possible. Bacteria can be programmed to respond to changes in temperature, pH, oxygen level. (via MIT)
After Kosuri et al at Harvard figured out a way to store data within naked DNA in 2012, researchers at MIT have built on that engineering to incorporate such information into biological circuits, programs embedded within bacteria that tell the cell how to respond to various stimuli.
The technology hinges on translating information into binary code, which is then translated into DNA. The DNA is manipulated by a programming language, based on Verilog, most commonly used to configure computer chips. The trick is designing a circuit that will actually work within a living cell. Up until now, that has been a very time-consuming and laborious process with a lot of trial and error. But with the breakthrough of translation between programming code and DNA, an amateur with very little knowledge of genetic engineering can design biological circuits, simply by writing code and running it through a Web-based compiler, which then displays the necessary DNA sequence.
Currently, the successfully designed circuits have enabled cells to respond to 3 different kinds of stimuli, with a wide range of response possible. There’s still a learning curve: while MIT researchers created 60 different biological circuits, only 45 of them actually worked in bacteria. Sometimes a circuit doesn’t work well with a particular organism’s biology, for reasons not fully understood.
The most commonly used organism thus far has been E.coli, the microbiological equivalent of a lab rat-but research is currently underway to investigate the possibilities in Pseudomonas and strains of Bacteroides. Because the organisms have different metabolic pathways and capabilities, biological circuits manipulating those pathways have broad implications across a wide range of industries. The potential for reducing toxicity in many forms is promising-using bacterial circuits - means using less lead, commonly incorporated into computer parts, and cells that could selectively detect and destroy malignant tumors would drastically reduce the toxicity of cancer treatment. Whether fighting cancer or making an excellent batch of yogurt, bacteria may soon take over.
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