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."

Post by:
Filed under: Science
soundoff (114 Responses)
  1. Agnim

    These science children become even more dangerous by the day.

    It's not like we don't already have more than enough poisonous man-made substances in our bodies and in the life-giving environment to rival all the diseases of Nature. Mindless scientists 'having no adult in charge', have to continue to demonstrate that they can be more deadly to the environment than Mother Nature, by TAMPERING with and disrupting the natural biological equilibrium and the natural scheme of things, which took Mother Nature countless generations to evolve to present state of bio-equilibrium.

    December 12, 2010 at 3:02 pm | Report abuse |
    • Ralf the Dog

      1. The first thing they will do is design the bacteria to die when exposed to o2 or sunlight. If the bacteria get out, they will die.

      The next thing they will design the bacteria to do is break down toxic chemicals. They will also upgrade bacteria to eat the CO2 from power plants and turn it into clean fuel. Bacteria can be made to manufacture many things cleanly that require toxic chemicals today.

      This is the first step to a clean world.

      December 12, 2010 at 3:47 pm | Report abuse |
    • duh

      If you want to bring nature back to its pristine state then git rid of humans. Also, notice that the more technologically advanced countries are the ones with regulations that help protect our environment. With technology comes the ability to leave nature less disturbed than without it.

      December 12, 2010 at 5:30 pm | Report abuse |
  2. TheREALtruth

    When did the CNN audience get so damned stupid?

    December 12, 2010 at 3:04 pm | Report abuse |
  3. jf2

    good, now they can figure out what the heck went wrong with palin's fluke win at dancing with the stars.

    December 12, 2010 at 3:04 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Val Dene'

    Freedom of expression must be maintained. There is nothing to fear but fear itself. Quote, unquote, FDR. Let us not have fanatics of any kind decide for us what is to be expressed for the good of all. If we were to make research illegal out of fear than how do we make it safe from those who would go in secret to perform our so-called bad research? Let us not be stupid and choose moralistic, ambitious, ignorant politicians or religious big mouths, looking for notoriety from the ignorant masses, to decide what is to be allowed. Then we no longer have acting for society, freedom in a true democracy or republic. The idea of letting fear destroy our self expression leaves nothing but CONTROL by FEAR! Where does it end? It ends when we can no longer CREATE anything because of FEAR! Please let us have what is already ours - The ability to think and create with a free mind! We cannot make science perfect, nothing is. But how far from perfection do we remove ourselves when we act out of nothing more than than ignorance and fear?

    December 12, 2010 at 3:30 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Ralf the Dog

    Are they trying to say they are close to executing Turing Code on bacteria? Is DNA addressable? Can you conditionally execute instructions or conditionally jump to different bits of code?

    December 12, 2010 at 3:42 pm | Report abuse |
  6. stuart

    the gap between the scientist trying to understand how things work, and people full of fear to the unknown who cling to their believes is getting wider. is there a confrontation in our future? just thinking

    December 12, 2010 at 4:01 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Casan

    So if you extrapolate on these line of technological evolution, then soon it will be a matter of debate even if there is need for biological based human body? Our existance might just mean that we give birth to an eternal machinery consciousness; the ultimate order of the universe, as it realizes itself it might look up in the ever expanding flat universe and say...crab ..these biologicals have brought me up too late..I can't do anything to balance out this universe...

    December 12, 2010 at 4:19 pm | Report abuse |
  8. julie

    when you tinker with viruses or any bugs they have a way of fighting back and when it gets loose and it will nothing will stop it bugs can mutate and go airborne and kills millions genetics are not a joke i say leave it alone ypou can't control mother nature that's the illusion.

    December 12, 2010 at 4:24 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Xibz

    Z-day is near

    December 12, 2010 at 4:39 pm | Report abuse |
  10. dave

    the beginning of the end

    December 12, 2010 at 4:49 pm | Report abuse |
    • peetz!

      @dave...the beginning of the end started at the beginning. Oh, and the beginning will end when the end begins.

      December 12, 2010 at 7:15 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Val Dene'

    Forget trying to stop this research, or any research for that matter. We are going to be researching anything interesting no matter what. Being responsible and carefully proceeding is hopefully the probable action... none of the above will completely prevail, most likely. Setting guidelines and proceeding with caution would be most helpful. There are always those who will proceed in secrecy where there may be money to be made especially when it would be harder to carry out making their work even more appealing and valuable monetarily. There is only one thing to do. Don't try to stop it. Learn about what can be done to safely benefit from this technology and keep it safe; if possible. Trying to stop it would only make it worse.

    December 12, 2010 at 4:59 pm | Report abuse |
  12. blanca

    I dont see any evidence in this article that any kind of control over the bacteria, or within the bacterial community, was actually accomplished. The article says nothing about how the bacteria were under their control, or that the bacteria communicated any differently then it already does. It sounds like they put new genes in the bacteria and that is it. If all these researchers did was put engineered genes into the bacteria then that's nothing interesting. It happens all the time. Undergraduates at my school engineer their own bacteria to accomplish never before known tasks, or to put it mystically, as this article does, the undergrad's "program" the bacteria to accomplish a new feat. Its a trivial accomplishment.

    December 12, 2010 at 5:03 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Bob h Bob

    The universe would continue to exist even if only sentient machines existed.
    So if we create aware machines then yes biological units are no longer needed.
    And intelligent machines would probably be more robust than humans anyway.
    This is not snappy tripe. More like offal.

    December 12, 2010 at 5:06 pm | Report abuse |
    • duh

      I hear helions work great against biological units as long as they are not roaches. Make sure you dont run out of supply depots!

      December 12, 2010 at 5:23 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Bob h Bob

    With out our awareness of it the universe does not exist. Even if the result of this study is trivial our goal should be the same. Increased awareness of the universe.
    And we absolutely must determine when the first moment was.

    December 12, 2010 at 5:13 pm | Report abuse |
  15. The Scientist

    It can be done does not mean it must be used. Every technology is rigorously evaluated through R & D, the opportunity cost is weighed before it is used for human consumption. To say this is the best or the worst shows simply how much each of us understand the process of technology development and its application. Embrace human endeavor to rediscover knowledge and be prepared to provide valuable inputs. Do not just give a stubborn verdict.

    December 12, 2010 at 5:15 pm | Report abuse |
1 2 3 4