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Computing Inside Cells

microscopic image - mammalian cell

Using strands of nucleic acid, scientists have demonstrated basic computing operations inside a living mammalian cell. The research could lead to an artificial sensing system that could control a cell’s behavior in response to such stimuli as the presence of toxins or the development of cancer.

The research uses DNA strand displacement, a technology that has been widely used outside of cells for the design of molecular circuits, motors, and sensors. Researchers modified the process to provide both “AND” and “OR” logic gates able to operate inside the living cells and interact with native messenger RNA.

The tools they developed could provide a foundation for bio-computers that are able to sense, analyze, and modulate molecular information at the cellular level. Supported by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the National Science Foundation, the research was reported in the journal Nature Nanotechnology.

“The whole idea is to be able to take the logic that is used in computers and port that logic into cells themselves,” said Philip Santangelo, an associate professor in the Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering at Georgia Tech and Emory University. “These devices could sense an aberrant RNA, for instance, and then shut down cellular translation or induce cell death.”

Strand displacement reactions are the biological equivalent of the switches or gates that form the foundation for silicon-based computing. They can be programmed to turn on or off in response to an external stimuli such as a molecule. — John Toon

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John Toon

John Toon

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