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. Timothy

    Amazing. One day perhaps mankind will be able to eliminate disease.
    Fascinating that so many here react with fear and ignorance; but hardly surprising.
    We live in a dangerous time in which ignorance is encouraged.

    December 12, 2010 at 1:50 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Mogwi

    What happens when someone hacks into our bio computer cells? What about all the times a computer crashes? I'm alright if my computer or ipod breaks but I don't want my body to crash.

    December 12, 2010 at 1:52 pm | Report abuse |
    • joe

      Your body is like an ipod. In 30 years or less it will start to break down and eventually crash........

      December 12, 2010 at 2:13 pm | Report abuse |
  3. dan

    i wish scientists made a pill that would get me stoned as fukk. that way i didnt have to smoke so many blunts ruin my brain cells and blacken my lungs...

    December 12, 2010 at 1:52 pm | Report abuse |
    • peetz!

      @dan...Sorry buddy, but it seems its allready too late for you.

      December 12, 2010 at 7:56 pm | Report abuse |
  4. krozar

    When they going to use stem cells to clone a Shakey's Pizza?

    December 12, 2010 at 1:55 pm | Report abuse |
    • stanisawesome111

      soon my friend soon

      December 15, 2010 at 5:02 pm | Report abuse |
  5. tomcat

    i will agree that medically i would be in favor. my concerns are that in the wrong hands this technology could greatly influence the future of all mankind. as history seems to repeat itself, this reminds me of another round of menghela s experiments.

    December 12, 2010 at 1:59 pm | Report abuse |
  6. gedwards

    Holinwolf//"... it is our duty to do it responsibly."
    ==================
    That is the point of contention. IMO science in many instances is doing things just because they can, with no consideration for the potential ramifications. It's one thing to tackle polio. It's quite another to create bananas so that everyone of them is a clone.

    We both agree that it's a duty to be responsible. I would argue that we have not learned how to do that, and until we do (if we ever do), we should proceed with extreme caution. Especially anything involving the molecular level and life.

    There's nothing in the article that suggests the team is being responsible. Quite the opposite, creating code for bacteria, given our poor track record at creating bug-free code for inanimate objects that we designed, should be cause for alarm.

    December 12, 2010 at 2:01 pm | Report abuse |
  7. bill

    Don't forget to keep killing all the pot plants. Shakeys pizza...are you from the Region?

    December 12, 2010 at 2:04 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Tim

    There must be a sink in the lab. If a scientist pours a cup of water into the sink and there is a water molecule in that cup of water, can this scientist use the laws of chemistry, quantum mechanic, or theorems of relativity to tell exactly where this molecule will locate in 3 days later? This scientist seems to research great thing, but he can not answer this simplest question. That is the problem with science, they can not handle the randomness and give precise outcome of future. So that is why there is English word called "worldly"

    December 12, 2010 at 2:13 pm | Report abuse |
    • Steve

      This takes the cake for stupid complaints about science.

      December 12, 2010 at 3:10 pm | Report abuse |
    • Tim

      Back 2005, could science predict that Obama was going to win the President of United States. At the campaign headquarter of John McCain, they had Internet, video conferencing, or fiber optics (might be). They could use these scientific tools to communicate with campaign staffs around country and get real time statistics. But at the election night, when campaign staffs of John McCain saw Obama was winning state by state, what could they do about it?

      December 12, 2010 at 3:33 pm | Report abuse |
  9. SHADDOWCASTER

    TO THE SCIENTISTS –IF "THINGS" CAN BE ARRANGED AND PROGRAMED IN NATURE -DOES THIS ANSWER YOUR QUESTION "IS THERE A GOD WHO MADE ALL THINGS " :} –"GOD AINT NEVER LIED FROM THE BEGINING -SOME DAY YOU MAY FIND OUT THAT ANSWER ALSO :} .

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

      NO. WE WHEN WE MAKE DETERMINATIONS OF THAT SORT, THEY ARE CLEAR, FACT-BASED, AND NOT SUBJECT TO WILD INTERPRETATION AND GUESSING. YOU SHOULD READ ABOUT "SCIENTIFIC METHOD", AND PERHAPS YOU WON'T LIVE IN SUCH A WORLD OF CONFUSION AND UNCERTAINTY TO WHERE YOU EVEN FEEL YOU HAVE TO ASK QUESTIONS LIKE THAT. FURTHERMORE, IT WILL ENABLE YOU TO MAKE YOUR CASE WITHOUT TYPING IN CAPS, AND IF YOUR PRESENTATION IS LOGICAL, MAYBE SOMEONE WILL TAKE YOU SERIOUSLY INSTEAD OF FINDING A WAY TO MAKE AN AMUSEMENT OUT OF YOUR COMMENT.

      December 12, 2010 at 5:12 pm | Report abuse |
  10. jack

    Unbelieavable

    December 12, 2010 at 2:24 pm | Report abuse |
  11. John

    Wow

    December 12, 2010 at 2:32 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Cesar

    So then these are computer literate bacteria??

    December 12, 2010 at 2:34 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Zack

    Should we not be concerned over which people will have control over this technology? Are we supposed to trust corporations to exercise fair and ethical judgment with this Pandora's box?

    December 12, 2010 at 2:34 pm | Report abuse |
    • Agnim

      The wise will be very very 'concerned', Zack! Very very concern; because the primary motives driving this destabilization of the natural life-giving environment are ignorance & GREED!

      December 12, 2010 at 3:05 pm | Report abuse |
  14. tomcat

    @cesar what up?

    December 12, 2010 at 2:39 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Reynardine Greencastle

    I have a funny feeling that the first broad use of this may be dysgenic: to convert "those others" into the "subhumans" they are "supposed" to be, so they can't get uppity and will stay in their place. Only, of course, some of "them" will have the same idea, and we will wind up with a globe full of vicious cretins wiping each other out for spite as they suffocate in their own filth. Wait... isn't that happening already?...

    December 12, 2010 at 2:44 pm | Report abuse |
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