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Democratising genetic engineering with new programming language

Signal of change / Democratising genetic engineering with new programming language

By James Goodman / 20 Apr 2016

It has been possible for well over a decade to design a DNA sequence, insert it into a living cell and change that cell’s behaviour. But this has been confined to the long and painstaking work of expert genetic engineers. Now scientists at MIT are making it possible to do this much more quickly and without the need for detailed knowledge of how genetic engineering works.

This is how it works: the scientist uses the new programming language to describe the cell’s desired stimulus and response. This is then translated by the programme into a DNA sequence, which can then be embedded in a living cell. The approach has worked so far with simple bacteria like E Coli, and the next stage is to programme other types of bacteria where there may be widespread applications. One idea is to programme gut bacteria to digest lactose when the bacteria sense it has been consumed; another is to programme bacteria to search out, grow among and attack cancer cells. And another is to instruct bacteria that grow among plant roots to release insecticide, but only if the plant is attacked by insect pests – making pest control much more precise and less environmentally damaging.

So what?

It’s the speed and ease of programming cells that is the breakthrough here. This new approach to genetic engineering could open up the field to more people, and vastly increase the number of applications of the technology to real world problems, making it easier to experiment and test ideas. It’s particularly exciting to think about how this could combine with the rapidly developing science of the human microbiome to progressively harness the beneficial role of the huge and complex communities of bacteria we live with and depend on.

This will surely be of great interest to the bio-hacking community as well as academics, but will no doubt concern those who already worry about the regulation of synthetic biology and the risk of unintended consequences – or even deliberate misuse (for example, the creation of new pathogens).

Image Credit: flickr / John Woo


MIT News (March 31, 2016). A programming language for living cells.

Science Magazine (April 1, 2016). Genetic circuit design automation

Digital Trends (April 4, 2016). MIT biologists have developed a programming language for bacteria

TED (March, 2015) Tal Danino: Programming bacteria to detect cancer

London Biohackspace (2016)

What might the implications of this be? What related signals of change have you seen?

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