These Protein Logic Gates Turn Cells Into Computers

Scientists created protein logic gates that shape human biology like computer tools, hinting at the future of medicine.
Brad Bergan

The tools we use to make computers work are now seeing new applications — to control life at the molecular level, according to a new study published in the journal Science.

The new advances could shape the future of medicine and synthetic biology.


Logic gates and synthetic biology

The team behind the study — headed by the University of Washington School of Medicine — created artificial proteins that work as molecular logic gates. Just like electronic circuits, the logic gates can be used to program behavior in more complex systems.

The team found that new designer proteins can regulate gene expression within human T-cells. This could improve the durability and safety of cell-based therapy in the future.

"Bioengineers have made logic gates out of DNA, RNA and modified natural proteins before, but these are far from ideal. Our logic gates built from de novo designed proteins are more modular and versatile, and can be used in a wide range of biomedical applications" said David Baker, senior author of the study and professor of biochemistry at the UW School of Medicine and director of the Institute for Protein Design, according to

Both biological and electronic logic gates sense and respond to signals according to a predetermined function. A simple one is called the AND gate — it gives an output only if one input AND another are present, according to

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This is a lot typing an uppercase A on the keyboard — by hitting the letter with the shift key. The key to logic gates' appeal lies in bringing this specificity of control into bioengineered systems.

The future of medicine

If the correct gates are at work inside living cells, inputs like AND — or the opposite, when one and not the other input is present — can make a cell perform a unique output like activating or suppressing a gene.

"The whole Apollo 11 Guidance Computer was built from electronic NOR gates," said Zibo Chen, lead author and recent UW graduate student, according to "We succeeded in making protein-based NOR gates. They are not as complicated as NASA's guidance computers, but nevertheless are a key step toward programming complex biological circuits from scratch."

Applications for this technology could expand and advance the study of some of the toughest subjects in modern medicine — even cancer — so one would do well to bookmark this new advanced tool of synthetic biology.

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