Programming cells like computer code

The word itself says it all: biotechnology is a marriage of biology and technology. One of the newest initiatives committed to unprecedented intersections of both is happening within the arena of cell programming.

Companies like Clotho and Genome Compiler develop programs that write, synthesize and engineer synthetic biological systems by likening genetic code to computer binary. In his “Solve for X” talk, Omri Amirav-Drory of Genome Compiler Corp goes from the huge to the miniscule when he shows how the solution to our need for sustainable energy lies in genetic engineering.

Watch his 10-minute talk here:

Synthetic biology and biotechnology are indeed viable ways of combating the huge problem of our dependence on fossil fuels with biology, thanks to its versatility, scalability and renewability. Programmed cells also have a myriad of other uses, many of which we have today, like production of medicine and biofuels.

Traditional genetic engineering can be compared to writing 0’s and 1’s to operate a computer – a method that has been replaced by modern software and programming languages. The concept can be applied to biology, by designing biological ‘apps’ that can be installed into living organisms such as bacteria. Where computers read binary in 1’s and 0’s, biology reads genes in A’s, T’s, C’s and G’s (the building blocks of DNA). We just need the design tools (like a software program) to compile and debug the biological code to make it run in living organisms (like the computer). That’s what cell programming language does: it creates the tools to read and write the DNA that will make engineered genes “run” in cells. This way, we can work towards solving the world’s sustainability, health and energy problems by synthesizing cell factories. Omri Amirav-Drory gives the example of a programming command, that compiles into a tree and creates light thanks to a firefly’s fluorescent gene. Isn’t that revolutionary?

Yet, Nature Magazine has written about the challenges yet to come with synthetic biology, because as we look at all life as based on the same genetic code, we’ll realize more and more how complex biological systems are.

However, Clotho and Genome Compiler believe in democratizing genetic engineering in order to understand this complexity. Clotho has made an App that standardizes and manages data, while Genome Compiler wants to crowd-source gene design for optimal creativity. The more thinkers, the merrier, and it’s easier to visualize new genetic patterns when we’re less tied to preconceived notions of those that ‘work’.

We at Labster similarly re-imagine biotechnology as software. We share the same vision: let’s give everyone the chance to be a genetic engineer (without being limited by money or access to lab space). Let’s start this process virtually with software, not cook-book lab exercises, because so much of genetic engineering happens with computers. For example, the first step in Labster’s insulin and enzyme production cases requires us to design a gene on the computer and then order it. In essence, connecting blocks of DNA with software is a simple use of cell programming.

And as we come up with ideas for more cases, a similar cell factory case is on the list!

Sign up to our newsletter to stay up to date with the latest in science teaching and learning.