Hacking living cells just got a whole lot easier

If you can code in Verilog, then congratulations: you’re now one step closer to an exciting career in genetic engineering.

Hacking living cells just got a whole lot easier

Scientists at MIT have successfully hacked living cells by inserting into them DNA code based on a programming language called Verilog, which is often used to program computer chips. “It is literally a programming language for bacteria,” explained Christopher Voigt, professor of biological engineering at MIT. “You use a text-based language, just like you’re programming a computer. Then you take that text and you compile it, and it turns it into a DNA sequence that you put into the cell, and the circuit runs inside the cell.”

The implications for genetic engineering are potentially huge, and the researchers highlighted a couple of possibilities: bacteria cells that could produce cancer-fighting drugs when they detect a tumour, say; and yeast cells that stop their fermentation if things become too toxic.

We can already edit cells, but the way we do things right now is painstaking and often messy,” explains Voigt. “Using the Verilog-based system, the bar to entry for genetic engineering is suddenly much, much lower. You could be a student in high school and go on to the web-based server and type out the program you want, and it [would spit] back the DNA sequence..

The modified language includes a series of logic gates and sensors that can be encoded in cell DNA – in the case of the MIT research, E.coli. These sensors can detect compounds such as oxygen or glucose alongside environmental changes, such as fluctuating light, temperature or acidity. Extra sensors can be added as users see fit.

The results have been pretty impressive: out of 60 circuits programmed by the researchers, 45 worked as intended on the first attempt.

As Drew Endy from Stanford University told New Scientist, this opens up a new set of uses for computer science degrees: “I expect that programmers of biology will become more commonplace than programmers of electrical computers. Not everyone has a computer or even a cellphone, but everyone has biology.”

READ NEXT: Everything you need to know about CRISPR, the tool that cuts DNA to order

Images: Janet Iwasa – MIT and VeeDunn

,” explains Voigt

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