MIT biological engineers have unveiled a programming language that can be used to redesign bacteria, yeast and other microorganisms. This allows biological designers to modify or remove functions that have been naturally “programmed” into the organism and to add their own creations to the living cells. Using this language, a designer could program bacteria to target and attack tumors, similar in effect to the cancer-hunting, modified herpes virus recently approved by the FDA.


E coli, E. Coli, escherichia coli

CGAT is the new 0-1 binary. The new language facilitates further innovation by allowing those that lack specialized skills to more easily speak the language of bio-engineering and design their own organism. The language is essentially a modified version of Verilog, a text-based language primarily used to program microchips. Within this new language, MIT engineers developed biological versions of computing functions, such as sensors and logic gates, that can be embedded directly into an organism’s DNA. These sensors have the ability to recognize compounds such as oxygen and glucose, which allows for great sophistication in bacterial behavior. After the Verilog program is written, it is transferred to an online compiler called Cello, which creates a DNA sequence based on the written program.

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The Verilog-based programming language is designed specifically for modifying E. Coli bacteria. However, the MIT researchers hope to expand its application to other microorganisms, like the gut-dwelling Bacteroides, the root-wrapping Pseudomonas, and the yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae. Specific forms for these programmed GMOs include gut bacteria that aids the digestion of lactose, natural bacterial insecticide to sense danger and protect plants, and smart yeast that halts fermentation if toxins accumulate.

Scientists have been genetically modifying organisms for decades but the new language represents a breakthrough in accessibility. “You could be completely naive as to how any of it works. That’s what’s really different about this,” says Christopher Voigt, professor of biological engineering at MIT. “You could be a student in high school and go onto the Web-based server and type out the program you want, and it spits back the DNA sequence.”

Via Kurzweill AI

Images via Janet Iwasa and NIAID/Flickr