Programming living cells offers the prospect of harnessing sophisticated biological machinery for transformative applications in energy, agriculture, water remediation and medicine. Inspired by engineering, researchers in the emerging field of synthetic biology have designed a tool box of small genetic components that act as intracellular switches, logic gates, counters and oscillators.
But scientists have found it difficult to wire the components together to form larger circuits that can function as “genetic programs.” One of the biggest obstacles? Dealing with a small number of available wires.
A team of biologists and engineers at UC San Diego has taken a large step toward overcoming this obstacle. Their advance, detailed in a paper which appears in this week’s advance online publication of the journal Nature, describes their development of a rapid and tunable post-translational coupling for genetic circuits. This advance builds on their development of “biopixel” sensor arrays reported in Nature by the same group of scientists two years ago.
The problem the researchers solved arises from the noisy cellular environment that tends to lead to highly variable circuit performance. The components of a cell are intermixed, crowded and constantly bumping into each other. This makes it difficult to reuse parts in different parts of a program, limiting the total number of available parts and wires. These difficulties hindered the creation of genetic programs that can read the cellular environment and react with the execution of a sequence of instructions.
The team’s breakthrough involves a form of “frequency multiplexing” inspired by FM radio.
“This circuit lets us encode multiple independent environmental inputs into a single time series,” said Arthur Prindle, a bioengineering graduate student at UC San Diego and the first author of the study. “Multiple pieces of information are transferred using the same part. It works by using distinct frequencies to transmit different signals on a common channel.”