Team builds logic gates into bacteria

A team at the University of California has successfuly implanted E coli bacteria with the key molecular circuitry to act as computers.

They’ve given the cells the same sort of logic gates, and created a method to build circuits by ‘rewiring’ communications between cells. It means cells could be turned into miniature computers, they say.

Christopher A Voigt, PhD, an associate professor in the UCSF School of Pharmacy says cells could be programmed for a variety of purposes, including agriculture and the production of pharmaceuticals, materials and industrial chemicals.

“We think of electronic currents as doing computation, but any substrate can act like a computer, including gears, pipes of water, and cells,” Voigt said. “Here, we’ve taken a colony of bacteria that are receiving two chemical signals from their neighbors, and have created the same logic gates that form the basis of silicon computing.”

Voigt’s team built simple logic gates out of genes and inserted them into separate E coli strains. The gate controls the release and sensing of a chemical signal, allowing the gates to be connected between bacteria in much the same way as electrical gates on a circuit board.

“The purpose of programming cells is not to have them overtake electronic computers,” says Voigt. “Rather, it is to be able to access all of the things that biology can do in a reliable, programmable way.”

The research has already formed the basis of an industry partnership with California-based Life Technologies. The genetic circuits and design algorithms developed at UCSF will be integrated into a professional software package as a tool for genetic engineers, much as computer-aided design is used in architecture and the development of advanced computer chips.

The next step, says Voigt, is to be able to program cells using a formal language similar to computer programming languages.