MIT Scientists Make Smart-Poo Possible – Biological Circuits Can Perform Logic AND Write Results In DNA
It’s a dream come true for biological engineers: MIT researchers have created a “biological circuit” e-coli bacterium that can perform 16 boolean logic functions and store the results in a strand of DNA written using recombinases. It’s the first time that living cells have been turned into an organic computer. Well … almost.
The brains of every living thing aside, the MIT smart-bacteria is still missing one vital feature: the ability to read stored information back. So the computational logic is still somewhat missing as it’s only one-way. But it’s a huge breakthrough all the same.
Now, you might just be wondering, what, exactly, is this actually good for?
Well it’s certainly not going to revolutionize computers for a start. Reading DNA is not exactly something that we can do quickly. But in that our squishy organic bodies aren’t exactly conducive to machine melding, this opens up a whole new world of medicine at the very least.
For example, tests for cancer can be, well, rather invasive, what with the poking and the prodding and the cutting and all. Biopsies are a b____. But imagine a world in which your doctor could give you a yogurt beverage laced with these genetically engineered bio-circuits programmed to detect cancer. You drink. You poo. And then the hospital examines the resultant DNA output and viola, you know if you have cancer or not.
Part of what makes it so effective is that bacteria like to reproduce themselves, and as they do this, the information stored in the DNA becomes duplicated as well. That’s what DNA is there for. This creates a high redundancy of the information that makes it much easier to extract the resulting data than trying to find a single solitary bacteria cell before it dies. The more they multiply, the easier it is to find a copy. So it’s actually conducive to working with our own biology as by the time that smart-poo makes it out our back ends, there’s plenty enough redundancy of the data to be found.
And similar to your smart-poo future of easy disease identification, likewise in the future your doctor could even offer you a much less dangerous form of chemotherapy where the drugs are embedded with biological circuits that self-destruct only when they’ve reached a targeted area, delivering the medication only to the cells that were targeted. The beauty of a biological circuit that can alter its own DNA is that it can be “programmed” to self-destruct by intentionally making its own genetic material non-viable once it has completed its mission. It’d be a much safer solution than flooding your whole body with medication, and would make you a whole lot less ill.
Another such application of a bio-circuit is that you could make bio-sensor strips of a suspended bacteria gel that change colors when they detect pre-programmed drugs, toxins, diseases, or even explosives. Imagine no longer needing the nose of a dog, but using a simple strip of gel that absorbs particulate from the air. The simplicity and low cost would allow these bio-sensors to be utilized anywhere and everywhere.
Not to mention, potentially, being a mechanism which can one day be used to re-write DNA in living hosts to cure someone of a genetic disease. Bacteria programmed to use recombinases to alter targeted ‘bits’ of DNA are an awfully close to being the very tools you’d need to fix our own genes.
The ability to engineer a biological circuit can go a great way to changing our whole world.
And there’s always the Dark Side. Cynics will no doubt point out that any tool that can be used for good can also be used for ill.
So it may come as something of a sigh of relief that we’re still a long way off from any of this. But the building blocks that were once separate are now being put together. It’s fast becoming a question of “when” rather than “if”.