A team of Stanford University engineers has put a simple computer inside a living cell, where it could detect disease, warn of toxic threats and, where danger lurked, self-destruct rogue cells.
The achievement, announced in Friday’s issue of the journal Science, takes us to a new frontier, where nature is being programmed to deliver information long-concealed in human bodies.
“We’re going to be able to put computers inside any living cell you want,” said lead researcher Drew Endy of Stanford’s School of Engineering. “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.”
The creation completes 10 years of work to build the biological computer. It is the latest step in the new field of synthetic biology where, one gene at a time, engineers strive to design organisms unlike anything made by Mother Nature.
These tiny computers could deliver yes or no answers to virtually any biological question that might be posed within a cell. For instance: Is toxic mercury present in our food? Scientists could introduce a detective “sentinel” organism to find out.
The internal computers could communicate by engineering cells to change. The “simplest way is to have the cells change their smell or color,” Endy said.
These cellular computers also can count, providing a useful tool when treating diseases like cancer, in which cells divide uncontrollably. Suppose a liver cell carries a computer that records how many times it divides. Once the counter hits 500, for example, the cell could be programmed to die.
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