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"Living I.T." -- The Discovery Files

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A team of University of Washington synthetic biology researchers have demonstrated a new method for digital information processing in living cells, analogous to the logic gates used in electric circuits. Using this method, cells could potentially be reprogrammed to undergo new developmental pathways to regrow organs or to develop entirely new ones.

Credit: NSF/Karson Productions

Audio Transcript:

Nature's way 2.0.

I'm Bob Karson with the Discovery Files, from the National Science Foundation.

The DNA that gives marching orders to living cells. What if we could use it to turn cells into computers programmed to respond to certain conditions?

A team at the University of Washington has demonstrated a new method for digital processing in living cells. They borrowed the idea from electronics and built a set of synthetic genes that function in cells like "nor gates" do in electronic circuits. Nor gates only pass on a positive signal if both inputs of the gate are negative.

Assemble these gates together and you can make any kind of information processing circuit. But instead of using silicon and solder, the UW team built their circuit with DNA inside yeast cells. Each cellular nor gate is a gene with three stretches of DNA that can be programmed -- two are inputs, one is the output. They used a new gene-splicing technology called CRISPR-Cas9 [crisper-kass-nine] to target those stretches and determine if a particular nor gate will be active or not.

The circuits they built are the largest to date in cells capable of complex behaviors.

Applications might someday include programming cells to regrow organs, or become cellular biosensors that can easily diagnose infectious disease in patient tissue.

Kind of gives the phrase "personal computer" a whole new meaning.

"The discovery files" covers projects funded by the government's National Science Foundation. Federally sponsored research -- brought to you, by you! Learn more at or on our podcast.

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