Scientists create computer-programmable bacteria
December 12th, 2010
10:59 AM ET

Scientists create computer-programmable bacteria

In research that further bridges the biological and digital world, scientists at the University of California, San Francisco have created bacteria that can be programmed like a computer.

Researchers built "logic gates" – the building blocks of a circuit – out of genes and put them into E. coli bacteria strains. The logic gates mimic digital processing and form the basis of computational communication between cells, according to synthetic biologist Christopher A. Voigt.

While the cells' logic operations are still resigned to simple functions, Voigt said the research lays the groundwork for cellular communication similar to computers.

The findings hold promise for fields such as agriculture and the pharmaceutical industry, where researchers use bioengineering to enhance plant genetics.

“DNA is sort of the programming language for life,” Voigt told CNN in a telephone interview over the weekend.

“It's not that we're trying to replace computers with living cells. But it means we could gain programmable control of everything biology can do. You'd like to be able to control all these programs.”

Voigt said the ultimate aim is to create intricate computer code that can be read by living cells.

“We want to create a programming language for bacteria,” he said. “We want to program code for bacteria just like you would for a computer. A lot of the other work my lab does has to do with coming up with algorithms  – just like a programmer would do – and converting that into a DNA sequence.”

Complex functions akin to digital computation will come only if scientists create a viable language first, Voigt said.

“At some point, Microsoft Word had to have been converted to 1s and Os. It's the same way with cells," Voigt said. "What we've done here is created a fundamental language to show that they can work in bacteria. We still have a lot fewer circuits that you could use in computers."

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Filed under: Science
soundoff (114 Responses)
  1. amazed again

    Wow, ... and we were all worried that we would kill each other off with nukes.

    December 12, 2010 at 6:19 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Bob h Bob

    I would be willing.

    December 12, 2010 at 6:27 pm | Report abuse |
  3. amelia

    Insane. Dangerous. Unnecessary. We are supposed to die. Death is a part of life and although our culture idoes not accept this very well, this is just beyond normal. Is it 2012 yet?

    December 12, 2010 at 6:41 pm | Report abuse |
    • peetz!

      @amelia...please speak for yourself. Death might be a part of your life, but as for me, I'd rather avoid it if at all possible.

      December 12, 2010 at 7:09 pm | Report abuse |
  4. peetz!

    This is the greatest thing ever. Can we inject this into our politicians and program them to represent us? Honestly?

    December 12, 2010 at 7:07 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Cesar

    @Tomcat. What's up?

    December 12, 2010 at 7:48 pm | Report abuse |
  6. siferm

    "I am Legend"

    December 12, 2010 at 9:24 pm | Report abuse |
    • peetz!

      Yeah!...So who woke you up? And, who asked about the Region?

      December 12, 2010 at 10:01 pm | Report abuse |
  7. MagicDave

    This worse than a BAD IDEA. Those of you that applaud this "scientific breakthrough" probably think that GENETICALLY MODIFIED ORGANISMS ARE SAFE FOR THE ENVIRONMENT AND SAFE TO EAT TOO BUT YOU ARE FOOLS TO BELIEVE THAT BECAUSE IT WILL ULTIMATELY BE THE DEMISE OF THE HUMAN SPECIES. I AM NOT A COMMUNIST OR A LEFT WINGER EITHER. YOU CANNOT CLASSIFY MY FEELING ABOUT THIS WITH SOME STUPID POLITICAL LABEL. I AM AN ACTIVIST FOR SAFE FOOD THOUGH AND HAVE BEEN A PART OF THE FIGHT TO STOP THIS SORT OF TECHNOLOGY. IT IS EXTREMELY DANGEROUS FOR YOU MORONS THAT THINK THIS IS A GREAT DISCOVERY ALL THE WHILE EATING YOUR GENETICALLY MODIFIED CORN ON THE COB THAT PRODUCES IT'S OWN SYSTEMIC INSECTICIDE THAT IS ALSO POISONING YOU. IF IT KILLS AN INSECT LOOKING FOR A MEAL WHAT MAKES YOU THINK IT ISN'T ALSO POISON YOU. BECAUSE YOU HAVE MUCH MORE MASS THAN AN INSECT IT WILL JUST POISON YOU MORE SLOWLY. YOU OBVIOUS HAVE A BRAIN THE SIZE OF AN INSECT.

    December 13, 2010 at 12:44 pm | Report abuse |
  8. ghaith

    may be I got the Idea, but the thing which I don't know is that what we can do with a natural human (advantages) if we know the programming code of the bacteria(or what the bacteria do), can we build a bacteria that attach other bacteria's or even prevent it to attach a human?,
    I want somebody explain that for me via my e-mail ( ghaith_o@yahoo.com )
    thanks for reading,

    Ghaith A. Al-Omari
    HU

    December 13, 2010 at 1:33 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Stupid Guy

    We must remember that biological organisms behave randomly, even if influenced by another force. This seems rather unsafe for medicine.

    December 13, 2010 at 4:29 pm | Report abuse |
  10. I agree with stupid guy

    I seriously doubt that the scientists that are involved can create a microscopic semi-cybernetic organism with just a radio frequency created by a computer, however the same cant be said for the people that live near the HAARP base in Alaska. the radio frequencies there are actually powerful enough to broadcast thoughts to your mind that will sound like your conscience telling you to do something. so, it is possible, but like Gaith said, you would need to find the frequency at which their bodies operate at.

    December 13, 2010 at 6:00 pm | Report abuse |
  11. chris

    eh, watch out for buffer overflows please.

    December 13, 2010 at 6:47 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Raytoons

    So DNA is sort of the programming language for life? And this came out of evolution?

    Does that mean if hadn't built computers, it would of probably evolved from metal and plastic on its own?

    February 4, 2014 at 2:39 pm | Report abuse |
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