synthetic biology: Programmable Cells: Engineer Turns Bacteria Into Living Computers

04/27/05 — In a step toward making living cells function as if they were tiny computers, engineers at Princeton have programmed bacteria to communicate with each other and produce color-coded patterns.

The feat, accomplished in a biology lab within the Department of Electrical Engineering, represents an important proof-of-principle in an emerging field known as “synthetic biology,” which aims to harness living cells as workhorses that detect hazards, build structures or repair tissues and organs within the body.

“We are really moving beyond the ability to program individual cells to programming a large collection — millions or billions — of cells to do interesting things,” said Ron Weiss, an assistant professor of electrical engineering and molecular biology.

Abstract on RNA synthetic biology RNA molecules play important and diverse regulatory roles in the cell by virtue of their interaction with other nucleic acids, proteins and small molecules. Inspired by this natural versatility, researchers have engineered RNA molecules with new biological functions. In the last two years efforts in synthetic biology have produced novel, synthetic RNA components capable of regulating gene expression in vivo largely in bacteria and yeast, setting the stage for scalable and programmable cellular behavior. Immediate challenges for this emerging field include determining how computational and directed-evolution techniques can be implemented to increase the complexity of engineered RNA systems, as well as determining how such systems can be broadly extended to mammalian systems. Further challenges include designing RNA molecules to be sensors of intracellular and environmental stimuli, probes to explore the behavior of biological networks and components of engineered cellular control systems.