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Basel researchers develop innovative cell computer

Controlling gene expression through gene switches has long been one of the primary objectives of synthetic biology. Researchers in Basel have now developed a cell computer with two core processors.

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A team of researchers led by Martin Fussenegger, Professor of Biotechnology and Bioengineering at the Department of Biosystems Science and Engineering (D-BSSE) at the Basel-based Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich (ETH), have now found a way to use biological components to construct a core processor for a cell computer. This is flexible and accepts different kinds of programming, it was reported in an ETH news. It is therefore an improvement on the protein gene switches in cells that have been in use so far, which could accept only simple programming. The new biocomputer will now enable the “enormous metabolic computational capacity of a human cell” to be more effectively exhausted.

The scientists’ innovation is based on a modified CRISPR-Cas9 system that can be used to change DNA. This resulted in a processor that “can work with as many inputs as desired in the form of RNA molecules”. A special variant of the Cas9 protein forms the core of the processor. In response to input delivered by guide RNA sequences, the core processor regulates the expression of a particular gene, which in turn makes a particular protein.

To further boost the performance of the cell computer, the Basel researchers created a dual-core processor by using CRISPR-Cas9 components from two different bacteria. “We have created the first cell computer with more than one core processor,” said Martin Fussenegger in the press release.

This system could find application in both diagnostics and treatment. The cell computer could form a diagnostic molecule if a certain biomarker is present, for example. Or it might produce a pharmaceutical substance. It could also trigger production of a substance if the biocomputer registers a different biomarker. If a biomarker is registered in the body for a longer period of time “this could indicate that the cancer is metastasizing. The biocomputer would then produce a chemical substance that targets those growths for treatment”.

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