Scientists claim human DNA is controllable using electricity

A big leap forward in activating insulin production in targeted genes through new development – direct current (DC)-actuated regulation technology (DART) could help treat diabetes.
Sejal Sharma
Representational image of DNA
Representational image of DNA

anusorn nakdee/iStock 

Smart wearable technology in healthcare, like Fitbits and smartwatches like Apple Watch, are designed to collect a user’s data to track their health. If you really notice, you will see every third person walking down the street wearing some form of a smart wearable device.

While human biological systems are analog, in the sense that they are programmed by genetics and updated slowly by evolution, electronic systems are digital, in that they can be updated and controlled by electricity.

Bridging this 'lack of a functional communication interface,' scientists from ETH Zurich have devised such an interface through which our DNA can be controlled via electricity.

DART - the missing link

The researchers were able to show via an experiment that insulin production in human cells can be activated by sending electrical signals through an “electrogenetic” interface called direct current (DC)-actuated regulation technology (DART), which the team developed. These electrical signals activated the targeted genes.

DART requires very little power and overall energy to control target gene expression and the control of DART requires only a simple manual electrical ON/OFF switch.

The study finds that harnessing electrical signals makes it possible to manipulate genes. This discovery can be applied soon in devices like smartwatches and can be used in the treatment of diabetes.

“Electrogenetic interfaces that would enable electronic devices to control gene expression remain the missing link in the path to full compatibility and interoperability of the electronic and genetic worlds,” said the researchers in the study.

Refurbishing a previous study

In another study published in 2020 by the same group of researchers, the team established that electrical stimuli could be used to regulate genes. 

The new design, however, simplified the initial design by implanting human pancreatic cells into mice with type 1 diabetes, the researchers told Vice. The goals of both the 2020 and 2023 studies were to return mice blood glucose levels to acceptable levels.

The researchers used electrically stimulating acupuncture needles which stimulated insulin release and restored normoglycemia (normal blood sugar levels).

The researchers claim that as the DART system does not need hours at higher voltages but only seconds at lower voltages to actuate transgene expression, it has higher energy efficiency and safety. 

The study also noted that electronics-free direct battery-powered low-voltage DC control of therapeutic transgenes in human cells is a leap forward. It represented the missing link that will enable wearables to control genes in the not-so-distant future.

The study was published in Nature.

Study Abstract:

Wearable electronic devices are playing a rapidly expanding role in the acquisition of individuals’ health data for personalized medical interventions; however, wearables cannot yet directly program gene-based therapies because of the lack of a direct electrogenetic interface. Here we provide the missing link by developing an electrogenetic interface that we call direct current (DC)-actuated regulation technology (DART), which enables electrode-mediated, time- and voltage-dependent transgene expression in human cells using DC from batteries. DART utilizes a DC supply to generate non-toxic levels of reactive oxygen species that act via a biosensor to reversibly fine-tune synthetic promoters. In a proof-of-concept study in a type 1 diabetic male mouse model, a once-daily transdermal stimulation of subcutaneously implanted microencapsulated engineered human cells by energized acupuncture needles (4.5 V DC for 10 s) stimulated insulin release and restored normoglycemia. We believe this technology will enable wearable electronic devices to directly program metabolic interventions.

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