By force of habit we tend to assume computers are made of silicon, but there is actually no necessary connection between the machine and the material. All that an engineer needs to do to make a computer is to find a way to build logic gates — the elementary building blocks of digital computers — in whatever material is handy.
So logic gates could theoretically be made of pipes of water, channels for billiard balls or even mazes for soldier crabs.
By comparison Tae Seok Moon’s ambition, which is to build logic gates out of genes, seems eminently practical. As a postdoctoral fellow in the lab of Christopher Voigt, PhD, a synthetic biologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he recently made the largest gene (or genetic) circuit yet reported.
Moon, PhD, now an assistant professor of energy, environmental and chemical engineering in the School of Engineering & Applied Science at Washington University in St. Louis is the lead author of an article describing the project in the Oct. 7 issue of Nature. Voigt is the senior author.
The tiny circuits constructed from these gene gates and others like them may one day be components of engineered cells that will monitor and respond to their environments.
The number of tasks they could undertake is limited only by evolution and human ingenuity. Janitor bacteria might clean up pollutants, chemical-engineer bacteria pump out biofuels and miniature infection-control bacteria might bustle about killing pathogens.
An AND gate, for example, turns on only if all of its inputs are on. An OR gate turns on if any of its inputs are on.
Suggestively, genes are turned on or off when a transcription factor binds to a region of DNA adjacent to the gene called a promotor.
To make an AND gate out of genes, however, Moon had to find a gene whose activation is controlled by at least two molecules, not one. So only if both molecule 1 AND molecule 2 are present will the gene be turned on and translated into protein.
Such a genetic circuit had been identified in Salmonella typhimurium, the bacterium that causes food poisoning. In this circuit, the transcription factor can bind to the promotor of a gene only if a molecule called a chaperone is present. This meant the genetic circuit could form the basis of a two-input AND gate.
The circuit Moon eventually built consisted of four sensors for four different molecules that fed into three two-input AND gates. If all four molecules were present, all three AND gates turned on and the last one produced a reporter protein that fluoresced red, so that the operation of the circuit could be easily monitored.
In the future, Moon says, a synthetic bacterium with this circuit might sense four different cancer indicators and, in the presence of all four, release a tumor-killing factor.Crosstalk and timing faults
Engineers designing biological circuits worry a great deal about crosstalk, or interference. If a circuit is to work properly, the molecules that make up one gate cannot bind to molecules that are part of another gate.
This is much more of a problem in a biological circuit than in an electronic circuit because the interior of a cell is a kind of soup where molecules mingle freely.
To ensure that there wouldn’t be crosstalk among his AND gates, Moon mined parts for his gates from three different strains of bacteria: Shigella flexneri and Pseudomonas aeruginosa, as well as Salmonella.
Although the parts from the three different strains were already quite dissimilar, he made them even more so by subjecting them to error-prone copying cycles and screening the copies for ones that were even less prone to crosstalk (but still functional).
Another problem Moon faced is that biological circuits, unlike electronic ones, don’t have internal clocks that keep the bits moving through the logic gates in lockstep. If signals progress through layers of gates at different speeds, the output of the entire circuit may be wrong, a problem called a timing fault.
Experiments designed to detect such faults in the synthetic circuit showed that they didn’t occur, probably because the chaperones for one layer of logic gates degrades before the transcription factors for the next layer are generated, and this forces a kind of rhythm on the circuit.Hijacking a bacterium’s controller
“I see the cell as a system that consists of a sensor, a controller (the logic circuit), and an actuator,” he says. “This paper covers work on the controller, but eventually the controller’s output will drive an actuator, something that will do work on the cell’s surroundings. “
An synthetic bacterium designed by a friend of Moon’s at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore senses signaling molecules released by the pathogen Pseudomonas aeruginosa. When the molecules reach a high enough concentration, the bacterium generates a toxin and a protein that causes it to burst, releasing the toxin, and killing nearby P. aeruginosa.
“Silicon cannot do that,” Moon says.
Diana Lutz | EurekAlert!
A Map of the Cell’s Power Station
18.08.2017 | Albert-Ludwigs-Universität Freiburg im Breisgau
On the way to developing a new active ingredient against chronic infections
18.08.2017 | Deutsches Zentrum für Infektionsforschung
Whether you call it effervescent, fizzy, or sparkling, carbonated water is making a comeback as a beverage. Aside from quenching thirst, researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have discovered a new use for these "bubbly" concoctions that will have major impact on the manufacturer of the world's thinnest, flattest, and one most useful materials -- graphene.
As graphene's popularity grows as an advanced "wonder" material, the speed and quality at which it can be manufactured will be paramount. With that in mind,...
Physicists at the University of Bonn have managed to create optical hollows and more complex patterns into which the light of a Bose-Einstein condensate flows. The creation of such highly low-loss structures for light is a prerequisite for complex light circuits, such as for quantum information processing for a new generation of computers. The researchers are now presenting their results in the journal Nature Photonics.
Light particles (photons) occur as tiny, indivisible portions. Many thousands of these light portions can be merged to form a single super-photon if they are...
For the first time, scientists have shown that circular RNA is linked to brain function. When a RNA molecule called Cdr1as was deleted from the genome of mice, the animals had problems filtering out unnecessary information – like patients suffering from neuropsychiatric disorders.
While hundreds of circular RNAs (circRNAs) are abundant in mammalian brains, one big question has remained unanswered: What are they actually good for? In the...
An experimental small satellite has successfully collected and delivered data on a key measurement for predicting changes in Earth's climate.
The Radiometer Assessment using Vertically Aligned Nanotubes (RAVAN) CubeSat was launched into low-Earth orbit on Nov. 11, 2016, in order to test new...
A study led by scientists of the Max Planck Institute for the Structure and Dynamics of Matter (MPSD) at the Center for Free-Electron Laser Science in Hamburg presents evidence of the coexistence of superconductivity and “charge-density-waves” in compounds of the poorly-studied family of bismuthates. This observation opens up new perspectives for a deeper understanding of the phenomenon of high-temperature superconductivity, a topic which is at the core of condensed matter research since more than 30 years. The paper by Nicoletti et al has been published in the PNAS.
Since the beginning of the 20th century, superconductivity had been observed in some metals at temperatures only a few degrees above the absolute zero (minus...
16.08.2017 | Event News
04.08.2017 | Event News
26.07.2017 | Event News
18.08.2017 | Life Sciences
18.08.2017 | Physics and Astronomy
18.08.2017 | Materials Sciences