BIL gate: A big step toward a biological computer
Scientists at Stanford University presented the remarkable production of genetic devices that work like a biological computer. The results, published on "Science" (28 March 2013), present the development of innovative genetic transistors that can be induced into biological cells and switched on/off in certain circumstances.
A team of bioengineers at Stanford University created the first biological transistor made from genetic materials - DNA and RNA - in place of gears or electrons. They call "transcriptor" the biological transistor.
Stanford's transcriptor essentially is the biological analog of the digital transistor. As transistors control the flow of electricity, as well transcriptors control the flow of RNA polymerases moving along a strand of DNA. The transcriptors do this by using special combinations of enzymes (integrases) that control the RNA's movement along the strand of DNA.
The creation of the transcriptor allows engineers to compute inside living cells and record, for instance, when cells have been exposed to certain external stimuli or environmental factors, or even to turn on and off cell reproduction as needed. Using transcriptors, the team has created something similar to what are known in electrical engineering as logic gates that can derive true-false answers to virtually any biochemical question that might be posed within the cell context.
They refer to their transcriptor-based logic gates as "Boolean Integrase Logic", or "BIL gates" for short. Transcriptor-based gates alone do not constitute a computer, but they are the third and final component of a biological computer that could operate within individual living cells.
You need more than just BIL gates to make a computer, though. You also need somewhere to store data (memory, RAM), and some way to connect all transcriptors and memory together (a "bus"). Fortunately several research groups have successfully stored data in DNA. In short, all of the building blocks of a biological computer are now in place.
Moving forward, the potential for real biological computers is immense. Biological computers might be used as an early-warning system for disease, or simply as a diagnostic tool. Biological computers could tell their host cells to combat disease, or to stop reproducing if cancer is detected. Thus, biological computers will probably offer the chance to obviate the use of many pharmaceutical drugs.
Research paper: DOI:10.1126/science.1232758 - "Amplifying Genetic Logic Gates"
By Sara Caragnulo, AllBioinformatics editorial staff on 01/07/2013