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It’s Getting Easier Than Ever to Program Live Cells

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Posted April 12, 2017

Image credit: National Human Genome Research Institute

Most people associate programming with computers and other electronics.

We know, on a basic level, programming is the language that tells your computer or smartphone how to function. What most people don’t know is scientists are working on ways to program live cells as well.

What can programmable cells be used for, and what effect does traditional programming have on this research?

DNA Data Storage

The first exciting advance in cell programming was in the field of data storage.

By coding data into a DNA sequence, scientists estimate that they could store all of the data ever recorded in all of human history in a single room. Digital data is stored in binary code — ones and zeros. To store that data in a strand of DNA, that binary code has to be translated into the four basic amino acids that make up DNA — adenine, cytosine, thymine and guanine.

The data can then be coded into the DNA sequence, where it could potentially last for millions of years without degrading. Most currently used forms of data storage only last between five and 20 years.

Cell Programming

What can live cells be programmed to do? The answer to that is limited only by the skill and imagination of the person doing the programming.

This cell hacking relies on a new programming language designed to help researchers reprogram bacteria. Essentially, the code is written in a text-based language and then compiled and converted into a DNA sequence that can be inserted in the target cell. These cells could be programmed to heal internal wounds, detect malignant cells before they could otherwise be found or even create or dispense a drug when the situation calls for it.

Imagine a cell that could be hacked and programmed to release insulin when it detected a spike in blood sugar without the need for injections. That’s just one possible application for this type of cell hacking.

New Software

Tinkering with DNA and genetics might seem like something you have to spend years in school to learn how to do. That’s not the case with this new form of cell modification — the coding program Cello is open-sourced and web-based, meaning anyone with a little bit of time on their hands to learn the system can try their hand at genetic manipulation.

This kind of programming software has been gaining popularity in many industries of late, as it can allow researchers to test software and other programs just like an expert. In some cases, this strategy can reduce testing efforts by 75% or more.

Open-sourced software like this has already made an impact on the medical community. By giving the problem to thousands of people, you don’t need to have one person solving it. Instead, you have a thousand minds working on little bits of the problem and collectively coming to a new solution.

It also allows researchers to outsource a lot of their processing power, freeing up their own computers for more specialized work. Stanford’s [email protected] project, for example, uses volunteer computers around the world to run protein-folding simulations.

Cell programming is still in its infancy, but it could potentially change the way we treat a variety of different conditions. If these programmed cells can be tested successfully, we might be one step closer to functional biological nanotechnology that completely alters medicine as we know it. Imagine being able to treat cancer by programming specific cells to destroy the malignant tissue while leaving the healthy cells unharmed, or programming cells to create a natural adhesive to seal internal wounds until they can be treated.

The possibilities are endless, and it all starts with the software that allows researchers and laypeople alike to program their own cells.

Written by Kayla Matthews, Productivity Bytes

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