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!
Climate Impact Research in Hannover: Small Plants against Large Waves
17.08.2018 | Leibniz Universität Hannover
First transcription atlas of all wheat genes expands prospects for research and cultivation
17.08.2018 | Leibniz-Institut für Pflanzengenetik und Kulturpflanzenforschung
New design tool automatically creates nanostructure 3D-print templates for user-given colors
Scientists present work at prestigious SIGGRAPH conference
Most of the objects we see are colored by pigments, but using pigments has disadvantages: such colors can fade, industrial pigments are often toxic, and...
Scientists at the University of California, Los Angeles present new research on a curious cosmic phenomenon known as "whistlers" -- very low frequency packets...
Scientists develop first tool to use machine learning methods to compute flow around interactively designable 3D objects. Tool will be presented at this year’s prestigious SIGGRAPH conference.
When engineers or designers want to test the aerodynamic properties of the newly designed shape of a car, airplane, or other object, they would normally model...
Researchers from TU Graz and their industry partners have unveiled a world first: the prototype of a robot-controlled, high-speed combined charging system (CCS) for electric vehicles that enables series charging of cars in various parking positions.
Global demand for electric vehicles is forecast to rise sharply: by 2025, the number of new vehicle registrations is expected to reach 25 million per year....
Proteins must be folded correctly to fulfill their molecular functions in cells. Molecular assistants called chaperones help proteins exploit their inbuilt folding potential and reach the correct three-dimensional structure. Researchers at the Max Planck Institute of Biochemistry (MPIB) have demonstrated that actin, the most abundant protein in higher developed cells, does not have the inbuilt potential to fold and instead requires special assistance to fold into its active state. The chaperone TRiC uses a previously undescribed mechanism to perform actin folding. The study was recently published in the journal Cell.
Actin is the most abundant protein in highly developed cells and has diverse functions in processes like cell stabilization, cell division and muscle...
17.08.2018 | Event News
08.08.2018 | Event News
27.07.2018 | Event News
17.08.2018 | Physics and Astronomy
17.08.2018 | Information Technology
17.08.2018 | Life Sciences