Create new life forms with ‘rewritable’ cells

U. NOTTINGHAM (UK) — An international research project to develop easily “reprogrammable” cells could pave the way for the creation of novel and useful life forms.

Researchers believe the game-changing technology could substantially accelerate synthetic biology research and development, leading to everything from the creation of new food sources to the growth of new organs for transplant patients.

“We are looking at creating a cell’s equivalent to a computer operating system in such a way that a given group of cells could be seamlessly re-programmed to perform any function without needing to modify its hardware,” says Natalio Krasnogor, professor of computer science at the University of Nottingham.

“We are talking about a highly ambitious goal leading to a fundamental breakthrough that will, ultimately, allow us to rapidly prototype, implement, and deploy living entities that are completely new and do not appear in nature, adapting them so they perform new useful functions.”

The project called Towards a Biological Cell Operating System (AUdACiOuS) is attempting to go beyond systems biology—the science behind understanding how living organisms work—to give scientists the power to create biological systems. The first step will be an attempt to make e.coli bacteria much more easy to program.

“Currently, each time we need a cell that will perform a certain new function we have to recreate it from scratch which is a long and laborious process,” Krasnogor says. “Most people think all we have to do to modify behavior is to modify a cell’s DNA but it’s not as simple as that—we usually find we get the wrong behavior and then we are back to square one.

“If we succeed with this AUdACiOuS project, in five years time, we will be programming bacterial cells in the computer and compiling and storing its program into these new cells so they can readily execute them. Like for a computer, we are trying to create a basic operating system for a biological cell.”

Among the most fundamental challenges facing the scientists will be developing new computer models that more accurately predict the behavior of cells in the laboratory. Scientists can already program individual cells to complete certain tasks but scaling up to create a larger organism is trickier.

The creation of more sophisticated computer modeling programs and a cell that could be re-programmed to fulfill any function without having to go back to the drawing board each time could largely remove the trial and error approach currently taken and allow synthetic biology research to take a significant leap forward.

The technology could be used in a whole range of applications where being able to modify the behavior of organisms could be advantageous.

In the long run, this includes the creation of new microorganisms that could help to clean the environment for example by capturing carbon from the burning of fossil fuel or removing contaminants, such as arsenic from water sources. Alternatively, the efficacy of medicine could be improved by tailoring it to specific patients to maximize the effect of the drugs and to reduce any harmful side effects.

Researchers from Michigan State University, New York University, University of California Santa Barbara, University of California, San Francisco, the University of Edinburgh, Arizona State University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Centro Nacional de Biotecnologia in Spain, and the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel are involved in the effort.

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