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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soundoff (114 Responses)
  1. tomcat

    computerized biology this has all the makings of a bad sci fi movie. mans desire for ultimate control of the world will be his demise.

    December 12, 2010 at 11:38 am | Report abuse |
    • Darketernal

      only stupid remarks like yours will be the end of our world.

      December 12, 2010 at 1:10 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jonathan

      Or it could save us. I'm more worried about Palin 2012 than I am scientists.

      December 12, 2010 at 1:35 pm | Report abuse |
    • gedwards

      We have a great track record when it comes to modifying nature to our benefit.

      Eliminating wolves in Yellowstone. Preventing natural forest fires. Introducing mongoose to Hawaii. Crossbreeding African and European honey bees. Introducing Asian carp in the South. This is one of those a learning opportunities to use science even further to fix what we broke in nature. IMO, the evolution of our intelligence for building and doing things has far outpaced the evolution of our intelligence for implementing things.

      December 12, 2010 at 1:41 pm | Report abuse |
    • The Other Rachel

      @tomcat– you took the words outta my mouth. Imagine the kind of biological warfare that could be waged with this discovery-it's fairly insidious.

      As much as I can appreciate what this knowledge means to science itself, I'm more inclined to use a little foresight as to what these scientific discoveries actually mean to humankind.

      December 12, 2010 at 1:42 pm | Report abuse |
    • Howlinwolf

      @ gedwards: Allow me to retort- Agriculture? Medicine? Vaccines? Would you even be alive without "manipulation of nature?" This ability and desire to manipulate nature is what makes us human, and it is our duty to do it responsibly.

      December 12, 2010 at 1:51 pm | Report abuse |
    • zach

      Communist? This is step into the FUTURE! once we have cells that understand binary, we can have biological computers that can do so much more, then we can have quantum computers which can do more than all of the worlds PC combined!
      Bravo! keep at it CA!

      December 12, 2010 at 1:54 pm | Report abuse |
    • Eva

      True scientific experimentation always must have a control group ... in this big experiment with genetically altering "life" ... where is our control group? ... a state of being that we can revert to if all goes wrong, a group that we can compare our results to ... we have NO control group!!! ... will somebody out there PLease help this poor Planet ...

      December 12, 2010 at 2:15 pm | Report abuse |
    • John

      1st one to build the A bomb wins! There is no holding back of technology, either embrace it or be ran over by it. Amen!

      December 12, 2010 at 2:20 pm | Report abuse |
    • Laurie

      seriously, for all you science complainers. you're the biggest hypocrites ever! when you get cancer, i'd like to see you refuse radiation and chemo for your cause. when your child gets hit by a car and loses a limb, i'd like to see you refuse a prosthetic. oh, and when you are paralyzed, i'd like to see you refuse stem cell therapy. you losers!

      December 12, 2010 at 2:24 pm | Report abuse |
    • Laurie

      Oh and for all you people who are religious and think we're threatening God, come on! if simply by programming a bacteria we're threatening God, then that's one weak God. All of this goes to show the marvel of God's creations and the complexity. Trust me, we're far from even remotely understanding how cells work. Nothing done in science will disprove God's existence and the ones who truly admire and appreciate the wonders of biology can only love it more. It's only the conservatively uneducated that thinks every little thing is apparently a threat to God.

      December 12, 2010 at 2:27 pm | Report abuse |
    • American Revolutionary

      Sorry we don't all want to eat tiger wang and black bear gall bladders to pretend to cure diseases! Science for the win!

      December 12, 2010 at 2:32 pm | Report abuse |
    • Rod C. Venger

      Wait until some hacker down the road reprograms a normally safe bacteria into one that exudes toxins that affect the nervous system, is programmed to feed off of and multiply inside the human body, and makes it airborne to boot. One could put it in a "tester" perfume bottle and leave it on the counter of any department store. It could kill dozens, hundreds, thousands, perhaps millions if contagious enough. The author doesn't specify what the lab's plans for this new bug are, but it seems to me that he's merely building Pandora's Box.

      December 12, 2010 at 4:29 pm | Report abuse |
    • PeteT

      I have created one red bacteria and one blue bacteria, demonstrating that I have created a 'binary code' in the bacteria!
      Please give me a no-strings attached $135 MILLION DARPA research grant, and slot me in for TED 2011, Mil.Gov coup.
      In China, on the other hand, they have already programmed the DNA to store TERABYTES of data in bacteria, but you
      won't hear that on CNN, or any mention of the fact that UCSF is a year late and a patent short, but will still get a grant!
      And that grant will come from public-funded R&D, and the outcomes will be patented and privatized by Big Corporate.

      December 12, 2010 at 5:22 pm | Report abuse |
    • John

      Maybe... if the hacker has a Phd in genetics and toxicology plus unmonitored access for several months at the minimum ta o laboratory with all the needed equipment. This isn't growing a few colonies on a petri dish; we're talking thousands of tries to get even simple compounds produced. Now figure that time plus trying to make sure that the strain wouldn't revert to it's original "program" after a few generations (which for bacteria would be a few days). And all this assumes it that the chosen bacteria can even produce the chosen toxin under ideal conditions.

      I would be more worried about all the idiots improperly using antibiotics. Every time someone goes "well I feel better so I can stop taking those pills now" they're giving the bacteria that survived a good chance of breeding up yet another strain of pathogen that is resistant to antibiotics. If the right amount is given, no bacteria can survive the combination of antibiotics and the bodies immune system (to pick off the survivors that might be the forerunners of a resistant strain). It's when people stop taking their medications early and the concentration of antibiotic in their body falls below the amount needed to kill the bacteria that resistant strains can start cross-breeding fast enough to survive.

      December 12, 2010 at 5:29 pm | Report abuse |
    • Andrew

      Seriously people, stop with the doomsday scenarios, and stop with the overzealous science promotion that makes this project seem revolutionary and landmark. We're a far cry away from anything any of you people are talking about.
      Instead, just read the actual paper (GASP! what a concept), linked

      nature.com/nature/journal/vaop/ncurrent/pdf/nature09565.pdf

      because CNN apparently has an aversion to linking to actual journal articles, and stop freely commenting on whatever comes to mind when you read a CNN digested press release. The vast majority of what everyone is saying about this is silly overselling or even sillier doomsday "evil scientists doing research" bits. It seems that either people expect too much of scientists, or people simply don't trust "scientists", and I'm venturing most who do either oversell or mistrust have never properly studied science a day in their lives... yet oh so willing to comment on it... without even reading the actual paper itself.

      December 12, 2010 at 8:19 pm | Report abuse |
    • hokkienmee

      since the day when man learns to use fire, it is used to cook food and in war. when sharp edges were developed, it was used to hunt down animals and also your enemies, fast forward, we have nuclear power, but also nuclear weapons.

      suggesting that we should not pursue new knowledge is like suggesting human should not have discovered the use of fire.

      December 12, 2010 at 11:54 pm | Report abuse |
    • Kamrom

      Wow, some people are all gloom and doom. This is GOOD science, safe stuff. Im still WAY more terrified of the ten thousand + fusion warheads we have

      December 13, 2010 at 9:37 am | Report abuse |
    • an0id

      I believe (maybe this is a very western view) a huge part of human evolution is our ability to overcome our environments. If manipulating genetics (or nano techs) are going to allow us to defeat disease, reverse aging, grow better foods and improve quality of life then is that evolution, or least progress as a species? Is it not our right of passage as a living, evolving organism to adapt and overcome?

      December 13, 2010 at 11:15 am | Report abuse |
  2. Bob h Bob

    The advancement of the human species is about to make tremendous advances in a relatively short period of time.
    Thanks to bioengineering we no longer have need for mutation.
    Get used to the fact that tomorrow's human will not be the same as today's.
    One huge advantage of this technology is humans can be modified to live in a warmer more acidic environment.

    December 12, 2010 at 12:10 pm | Report abuse |
    • MicheleG

      True, but unless we can bring the rest of the biosphere along with us we will be pretty lonely........

      December 12, 2010 at 1:11 pm | Report abuse |
    • John

      Better yet, we can control mutation! Finally a cure for cancer of all kinds...it's been the cause of death for most of my family members that have died.

      December 12, 2010 at 2:22 pm | Report abuse |
    • PeteT

      Yeah, maybe they can be 'programmed' to live under water and breath with bacterial gills. I volunteer Bob for beta tester.

      December 12, 2010 at 5:24 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Medicide!!!!!!

    I understand the ethical concerns this may cause, but what this means to medical science is big!!!!!This may be what it takes to give us total control over our bodies.

    December 12, 2010 at 12:48 pm | Report abuse |
    • gedwards

      Sorry, the government already called dibs on controlling our bodies.

      December 12, 2010 at 1:43 pm | Report abuse |
    • Paul

      This could go one of two ways. Scientific or Warfare. We could become immortals simply by telling our cells what to do, or the government can target whoever it wants, be it everyone at once or certain groups for elimination. Can you imagine what smart virus could do if they were being told what to do?

      December 12, 2010 at 6:17 pm | Report abuse |
    • an0id

      My concern is weaponized bacteria. Im all for the progress of health and science, but the possibilities to exist equally the abiliy to save life as well as to take life.

      December 13, 2010 at 11:19 am | Report abuse |
  4. GingerBread

    I do not condone electronically engineered bacteria. This just seems like the first step to our 1984 society of control. How frightening is that when you take a pill with genetically engineered material in it that can be REMOTELY CONTROLLED while it is in your body. It's like the argument of nanotechnology. If it isn't natural in and of itself it does NOT belong in the body for absorption.

    I already can't get a flu shot because of the adjuvients that are in the formula (I'm allergic), and now I won't even feel comfortable taking an asprin.
    Thank the higher power I have an organic garden I can still eat out of... At least I know I'm getting SOMETHING natural into my body.

    December 12, 2010 at 12:51 pm | Report abuse |
    • jason

      You dont even know what you are talking about. I hate people that fear anything new without understanding the science and engineering behind it.

      December 12, 2010 at 1:38 pm | Report abuse |
    • gedwards

      And I hate people that blindly applaud anything new in science and engineering without understanding the potential negative ramifications that would come with it.

      December 12, 2010 at 1:48 pm | Report abuse |
    • robert

      Spoken like a true luddite. Proceed from fear and ignorance. Don't waste time trying to understand when you can just prejudge everything as evil. Look around you. It is all the product of science. When you are ready to give all that up then you can start demonizing science.

      December 12, 2010 at 2:10 pm | Report abuse |
    • robert

      "Thank the higher power I have an organic garden I can still eat out of." your imaginary higher power did not hybridize the crops you grow in your "organic" garden, people did. You are just as dependent on technology as anyone, despite your laughable belief that your "organic garden" makes you a friend of the earth. But I guess when you know nothing it is easy to be delusional.

      December 12, 2010 at 2:15 pm | Report abuse |
    • John

      Go Robert and Jason! As a science teacher...it is very scary the myths people believe in and the science they discard or take for granted.

      December 12, 2010 at 2:26 pm | Report abuse |
    • S.Colbert

      You are obsolete. Fearing that which you don't understand like it's the 1600's.

      December 12, 2010 at 5:42 pm | Report abuse |
    • peetz!

      @GingerBread...time to wake up...we...ah...we allready took that first step to 1984 at the end of...1983. And the first step to "Big Brother" long, long before that. You live in it...just enjoy it!

      December 12, 2010 at 7:40 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Corey

    30 years from now we will not be able to call ourselves human anymore. Assuming we survive that long.

    December 12, 2010 at 12:52 pm | Report abuse |
    • robert

      Must be terrible to live in fear of the very things on which you depend. Now if you actually understood it maybe you would be less prone to panic when things change and more able to participate and contribute.

      December 12, 2010 at 2:19 pm | Report abuse |
    • peetz!

      @Corey...Almost the same words that were spoken when the first light bulb lit. Also, when Marconi sent the first radio transmission. Corey...just relax and enjoy a good DVD.

      December 12, 2010 at 7:47 pm | Report abuse |
  6. K

    And the Zombie Apocalypse just got a little closer...

    December 12, 2010 at 12:56 pm | Report abuse |
    • pketpket

      Brains...brains...brains...mmm

      December 12, 2010 at 1:28 pm | Report abuse |
  7. stevie68a

    It was predicted by "The Zombie Jesus". But wait! Do I see a "Zombie Virgin Mary"?
    Science flies men to the moon, religion flies men into buildings.

    December 12, 2010 at 1:01 pm | Report abuse |
    • Chad

      Science destroys entire cities (Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Most of Europe several times over). Religion creates entire cities (Jerusalem, Mecca). What's your point?

      December 12, 2010 at 2:22 pm | Report abuse |
    • robert

      @Chad, science didn't destroy the cities, people did. Science doesn't tell us to do anything, it gives us information. We decide what we will do with that information. Religion gives us no information, it tells us what is the "truth" and we are extorted to act on it under pain of eternal torture. With or without religion good people will do good things and bad people will do bad things, it takes religion for good people to do bad things.

      December 12, 2010 at 2:27 pm | Report abuse |
    • John

      And the bloodiest wars of Europe and Asia were fought in the name of religion. Scary people, religious fanatics...there is no reasoning with them.

      December 12, 2010 at 2:32 pm | Report abuse |
    • hfjkhsd

      lol chad ur so retarded

      December 12, 2010 at 5:36 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Yikes

    “At some point, Microsoft Word had to have been converted from 1s and Os. It's the same way with cells,"

    Don't you mean "to 1s and 0s" sweetheart? I'm not sure if the author of this article is incompetent or if Voigt is incompetent, but this article is incoherent and tells me nothing.

    December 12, 2010 at 1:03 pm | Report abuse |
    • Howlinwolf

      Unless they have updated it in the last half-hour, the article says "converted to 1's and 0's." However, depending on how you look at it, "from" may be just as appropriate if not more so. Microsoft Word's physical state of existence is bits (1's and 0's) on a hard drive. It gets converted FROM those bits into a multifunctional alphanumeric system which is the form we recognize. The flow of information actually goes both ways, as text is converted TO 1's and 0's when you save a file, or when the program is compiled. Similarly, organisms can be thought of as being made of bits (molecules) which are arranged by biological processes into a form we recognize. I think this is the analogy Dr. Voight was making.

      December 12, 2010 at 1:30 pm | Report abuse |
    • neurodetonal

      I think the article was trying to make the point that the level of development is at the point that "machine code" or "native code" is being established as proof of concept. After the low-level programming language has been developed, we can look forward to DNA .NET or something of the sort.

      December 12, 2010 at 4:29 pm | Report abuse |
  9. tnjen

    It seems like a tremendous oxymoron to say synthetic biology, but the science and results are all too real. My greatest concern, and hey I am for scientific advancements, but my concern is developing a malignant bacteria that nature itself will not be able to neutralize. Nature is pretty good at homeostasis ( meaning "to make balanced"), but this is a potential to create elements never seen before by nature. I hope that the scientist developing these synthetic strains follow quarantine 4 protocols to the Nth degree.

    December 12, 2010 at 1:04 pm | Report abuse |
    • jason

      Its not an oxymoron at all...its simply a form of nano technology... learn the facts before you speak

      December 12, 2010 at 1:36 pm | Report abuse |
    • jheron

      Its a myth that nature is in balance. It is in constant flux.

      December 12, 2010 at 1:38 pm | Report abuse |
  10. M

    IT seems like human beings shapes his own universe.....more precise .any natural object shapes according to his own needs........so be alive fellas....days like matrix or avatar.are not so far

    December 12, 2010 at 1:10 pm | Report abuse |
  11. cmon!

    think about what this could do for us people, we could cure disease. There would be little to no risk with this since we would be telling the organism what to do, not just throw medicine into the body and hope it works, like current medicine

    December 12, 2010 at 1:10 pm | Report abuse |
    • Uhbutwait

      Does your computer always work correctly? It never crashes, freezes, or performs in an unexpected way? Just because we can control the bacteria, doesn't mean we can control it well.

      December 12, 2010 at 2:10 pm | Report abuse |
  12. rationalusa

    WIth any technology there are both potentially helpful as well as malicious uses. I think this is exciting because life can do things that seem impossible to reconstruct. For example, imagine running your car motor on bacterial motor proteins...the new Honda E. coli. Also, keep in mind that are bodies are covered in symbiotic bacteria. So what if you could program bacteria to attach cancer or unclog a blood vessel in the heart. Seems exciting to me, but of course we have to be careful and try not to let these bugs get out of control.

    December 12, 2010 at 1:14 pm | Report abuse |
    • peetz!

      @rationalusa...I'll step on them if they do.

      December 12, 2010 at 7:53 pm | Report abuse |
  13. MikeBell

    Can it be programed for something useful. And useful to whom and for what purposes.
    Like most everything else that has a use for good it will inevitably end up being use by someone or some group for some nefarious use. The CDC and Ecologist need to be prepared.

    December 12, 2010 at 1:20 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Monterey Jack

    Is CNN getting slow or something? This was news almost a year ago.

    December 12, 2010 at 1:36 pm | Report abuse |
  15. pketpket

    Much of science fiction is based in part on sound scientific theory. The trick is realizing the descriptor "fiction" is still in the genre's name. Programmable cells? That's been around for as long as life has existed we just didn't realize it until the discovery of DNA. What the scientists this article want to discover is a way to fabricate artificially the DNA commands which result in the function of the cells. I find this very exciting. For instance imagine being diagnosed with diabetes and being prescribed a "bacterial treatment" whereby your body takes in this new information and the white blood cells get the new "code" and no longer would you have issues processing sugars. Amazing! I think the real potential for this technology will be for created viruses which can be manipulated in limitless ways. Imagine a true cure for cancer one that eliminates the rouge cells? The flip side is humans are weak ethically and prone to greed and so something like a real "zombie" epidemic could happen. Regulation is the key prevention factor.

    December 12, 2010 at 1:40 pm | Report abuse |
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