Computer software, and the operating system (OS) in particular, was arguably one of humanity’s greatest developments. Well, not in every instance of course: just take a few versions of Windows for example. Prior to the OS, virtually every tool or device was only made for, and capable of, a few select tasks. Wheels were for transport, axes for chopping, chairs for sitting, etc. Thanks to operating systems, and their versatile logic, the same piece of hardware can be used for many different functions, which is why this author can be typing this post online while listening to music and running MatLab all on the same computer.
Medical technology often faces the same limitations associated with more traditional tools. For example, though cells have been genetically engineered to produce pharmaceuticals, to consume pollution in the environment, or to detect certain toxic substances, these functions are not interchangeable and often require years of development to build the initial “hardware”; that is, the engineered cell.
An international team of synthetic biologists, led by professor of computer science Natalio Krasnogor at the University of Nottingham, hopes to change that by creating the first cell-based “operating system”. Krasnogor was quoted in a University of Nottingham press release as saying:
“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. 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 game-changing technology could substantially accelerate Synthetic Biology research and development, which has been linked to myriad applications — from the creation of new sources of food and environmental solutions to a host of new medical breakthroughs such as drugs tailored to individual patients and the growth of new organs for transplant patients.
Though the press release did not discuss how this would be achieved, we hunted down a 2010 paper by Krasnogor’s synthetic biology team that proposed a “bottom-up approach to cellular computing, in which computational chemical processes are encapsulated within liposomes.” The team refers to this as “liposome logic” or “vesicle computing,” which sounds analogous to the logic based off of the field-effect transistor, and it may be a part of the nascent “CellOS”. We look forward to hearing additional details on how the team progresses with the bold project, aptly named AUdACiOuS, and we’ll be keeping you informed!
University of Nottingham press release: Easily ‘re-programmable’ cells could be key in creation of new life forms
Grant from the Engineering & Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC): Towards a Universal Biological-Cell Operating System (AUdACiOuS)