Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Can Cells Be Programmed Like Robots?

The answer appears to be yes. I attended a presentation by Christopher Voigt last night at the Santa Fe Complex. He discussed the research he and others are doing that lets them custom build DNA and give organisms and cells properties they desire, essentially allowing them to make custom built DNA. All they need is to record a genome and they can send that information to a company who can then chemically create it and send it to them. He's even been able to make a primative camera using geneticaly designed light-sensitive bacteria.

Here is a description of his talk:
Voight is developing a basis by which cells can be programmed like robots to perform complex, coordinated tasks for pharmaceutical and industrial applications. He says, “We are engineering new sensors that give bacteria the senses of touch, sight, and smell. Genetic circuits — analogous to their electronic counterparts — are built to integrate the signals from the various sensors. Finally, the output of the gene circuits is used to control cellular processes. We are also developing theoretical tools from statistical mechanics and non-linear dynamics to understand how to combine genetic devices and predict their collective behavior.”
The technology behind this is absolutely fascinating and a bit disconcerting. For good or for ill, there's no turning back.

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