The dawn of biological computers is at hand. In a major first for synthetic biology, Stanford engineers have used genetic material to create a biological transistor. Called the "transcriptor," the creation is the final, missing component necessary for the creation of a biological computer that could enable researchers to program functions into living cells.
Modern computers rely on three standard functions. One: they must be able to store information. Two: they have to be able to transmit information. Three: they need a basic system of logic – a set of rules that governs how they should function given one or more forms of input. A biological computer would implement all three on a cellular level, using proteins and DNA in place of silicon chips.
The first two functions have been demonstrated with cellular materials before. Several labs have now demonstrated the ability to store digital data in DNA, some of them at jaw-dropping densities; and last year, a team led by Stanford bioengineer Drew Endy developed a system for transmitting genetic information between cells. Now, in a study recounted in the latest issue of Science, Endy's team has developed what it calls a "transcriptor" – the biological equivalent of a digital transistor – and with it a system of logic that can control cellular function.