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Among the challenges that will face scientists in the field of synthetic biology over the next decade is the development of living organisms that can interpret data and make decisions based on pre-established patterns.

In a recent project a team of two research groups from the Department of Experimental and Health Sciences at the University of Pompeu Fabra (UPF) exploited combinations of genetically engineered cells to assemble a network that demonstrates that creating biological systems capable of making decisions based on predefined criteria is now a reality.

Their experimental approach enables development of more complex computational systems than those devised to date. Thus, it could serve as the basis for the future design and application of artificial biosystems for decision-making in diverse contexts. 

The team’s work, published online in the journal Nature, represents a major advance in synthetic biology. The collaboration drew on the complimentary expertise of the group of Richard Solé (Complex Systems Laboratory), in theoretical biology, and of the group of Francesc Posas (Cell Signaling Research Group), in experimental biology.

To date, synthetic biologists have endeavored to design living computers based on fundamental concepts from electronics. However, this approach is problematic—namely, in how the different parts of the biological circuit would be connected. Whereas in electronics, physically separated circuit components are connected using a electrically conductive cable, this cannot be done in a living system, and therefore, synthetic biologists have not yet been able to achieve one of their principal aims: to combine different parts to obtain sophisticated devices.

Research enables assembly of sophisticated circuits from living cells

The UPF team tackled this problem with a new approach that enables sophisticated circuits to be assembled using live cells as building blocks and employing only very few connections. Thus, by eschewing electrical engineering design, they were able to build a system of cells that are capable of detecting and interpreting signals and that can be combined modularly. Just like LEGO blocks, the cells can be reused to build new circuits.

Using their system, the UPF team can build diverse circuits with only a minimal number of existing cells. Furthermore, once a circuit has been assembled, it can readily be programmed, by simply adding a specific compound to the cell culture medium in which it operates.

Their research offers endless possibilities. For example, systems could be designed to detect and subsequently break down specific molecules, or to interact with and control target cells; or a group cells could be programmed to behave as artificial tissue.

The Solé and Posas research groups have received funding from the Ministry of Science and Innovation, the EU (through the 6th and 7th Framework Programs), the Fundación Marcelino Botín, and the Catalan government’s ICREA program.

Reference publication: Distributed Biological Computation with Multicellular Engineered Networks, by Sergi Regot, Javier Macia, Núria Conde, Kentaro Furukawa, Jimmy Kjellén, Tom Peeters, Stefan Hohmann, Eulàlia de Nadal, Francesc Posas and Ricard Solé. Published online in Nature (doi:10.1038/nature09679), on 8 December 2010.

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