Scientists have genetically manipulated mammalian cells which are capable of carrying out logical commands and computations in a similar way as computers. Scientific endeavors in genetically engineering biological cells is not a new field of study. Other researchers have used organic materials before and genetically tweaking them to carry out logical tasks such as cells that glow when oxygen levels drop. This type of genetic engineering is simple for bacterial organisms such as E.coli as they are easier to manipulate.
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Previous attempts in creating genetic circuits in human cells have resulted in failures simply because the proteins called transcription factors, which cause the genes to turn on and off, don’t function in a uniform manner.
Researchers from Boston University (BU) have deviated away from these transcription factors and alternatively used a more suitable on and off enzyme ‘switch’ known as DNA recombinase. A DNA recombinase is a genetic recombination enzyme capable of manipulating the structure of genomes and to control gene expressions like turning them on or off. Recombinase functions as an enzyme cutting tool by snipping out selective parts of a DNA strand and stitching back the severed ends of the double helix.
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The scientists then created a genetic circuit called ‘Boolean logic and arithmetic through DNA excision’ (BLADE) and embedded it in a human embryonic kidney. The BLADE circuit functions through relying on recombinases under the control of a single promoter that incorporates circuit signals on a transcriptional layer. Through the use of BLADE, 113 circuits were built in a human embryonic kidney and Jurkat T cells, where 109 circuits (96.5% success rate) managed to function as intended without having to tweak the circuitry. With this complex manipulation of biological materials, the team has managed to successfully make the genetic circuitry work. One of the most interesting features of this circuit is the creation of a Boolean lookup table from human cells with six different inputs. One of sixteen logical operations was performed through the combination of the inputs.
Hacked cells applications
At this stage, the BU researchers’ studies are just “proof of concept” but a number of biological possibilities are being explored by the team. One potential use of this technology is manipulating T cells into annihilating tumor cells by using proteins that can recognize cancer cell biomarkers. The genetic circuitry could also be used in turning stem cells into any desired cells by using different signals and also generating tissues through use of commands.
These biocomputers can also be applied to diagnose illnesses by being triggered with proteins associated with the specific disease. For example, if the genetically engineered cells light up when combined with a patient’s blood sample then the result is a positive indication that they are infected with the disease. Current methods of testing blood samples are laborious and expensive so this type of scientific advancement could save the medical field a lot of money.
An intelligent biological manipulation with many useful applications, this is indeed the beauty of science.