Cells are like computers, they receive inputs, process that data and outputs accordingly. And for many years, biologists have been trying to hack these and control their processes.
In a recent study published in Nature Biotechnology, researchers programmed human cells to obey logical instructions- this enables cells to answer directions or cues in order to make important chemicals or even fight diseases.
The programmed cells operate by using DNA recombinases, specific proteins which cut, connect, or reshuffle segments of DNA, and is used to target precise locations on a DNA strand. The researchers figured out how to trigger such phenomenon. Wilson Wong, a biologist at Boston University who led the research calls these engineered cells as “genetic circuits.”
Whenever the cell contains a specific DNA recombinase, it would not produce a blue fluorescent protein that lights up the DNA. Conversely, when the cell didn’t contain such protein (recombinases), the cell wouldn’t glow. The programmed cell could also obey complicated instructions, like lighting up under longer sets of conditions. Wong says that you could use these cells to diagnose diseases, by activating them with proteins associated with a specific disease. In analysing blood samples, this would be cheaper than current methods that need expensive machinery. And these amazing scientists were able to let human cells obey 109 different sets of logical instructions!
But don’t get too excited yet. Take note that the cells are still recognizing and performing directions correctly. As every Arduino Maker knows, the first step to building complex Arduino circuits is teaching an LED light to blink when instructed. (By the way Arduino is open-source electronics platform based on easy-to-use hardware and software.)
Programmable cells also have other potential applications. These can be used by companies to produce specific chemicals like are fragrances for perfumes and colognes. Pharmaceutical companies are also teaching immune cells to be better cancer scouts by using similar technology. They can engineer immune cells that can detect biological fingerprints from cancer cells to target and destroy these in a more sophisticated and controlled way.
But it won’t be easy and cells are incredibly complicated and DNA isn’t like an electronic circuit. Wong says “In my personal experience building genetic circuits, you’d be lucky if they worked 25 percent of the time.” Human body is still full of wonders and just like how we were able to program AI’s, we may be in the verge of understanding better (and ahem, control) what has been like a universe within each and everyone of us.