If biologists could put computational controls inside living cells, they could program them to sense and report on the presence of cancer, create drugs on site as they’re needed, or dynamically adjust their activities in fermentation tanks used to make drugs and other chemicals. Now researchers at Stanford University have developed a way to make genetic parts that can perform the logic calculations that might someday control such activities.
The Stanford researchers’ genetic logic gate can be used to perform the full complement of digital logic tasks, and it can store information, too. It works by making changes to the cell’s genome, creating a kind of transcript of the cell’s activities that can be read out later with a DNA sequencer. The researchers call their invention a “transcriptor” for its resemblance to the transistor in electronics. “We want to make tools to put computers inside any living cell—a little bit of data storage, a way to communicate, and logic,” says Drew Endy, the bioengineering professor at Stanford who led the work.