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Microsoft and Edinburgh to make biological computation a reality

Electronic circuits in cells

Microsoft has teamed up with SynthSys Principal Investigator, Dr Baojun Wang, to build the genetic ‘hardware’ needed to turn living cells into biological computers.

In your everyday laptop or tablet, computations are made of binary calculations executed by electrons flowing through metal wires connecting multi-layered logic gates. Similarly, cells are akin to living computers but have biochemical inputs and outputs, and internal gene networks that mimic the logic gates needed to integrate multiple environmental and cellular signals. As with the design of silicon-based electronic circuitry, customised genetic circuits can be constructed to link the various sensors and outputs and to program cells to generate desired behaviours in response to specific signalling inputs.

As part of this effort, Microsoft is funding a graduate student in Baojun’s lab to engineer and compile a library of versatile orthogonal (i.e. those that won’t cross-react with the cell’s native genetic components) genetic building blocks. These will then be used to program advanced signal processing capabilities in live bacterial cells – something that to date has proven very challenging.

Microsoft is providing bespoke software tools and cutting edge modelling expertise to the team realising its ambition to design a biological computer that could contain dozens or hundreds of biological computing blocks.

Dr Neil Dalchau, of the Biological Computation group at Microsoft Research Cambridge, says: “This strategic partnership will combine our strengths in computational modelling and Edinburgh’s expertise in synthetic biology to push the frontier of biocomputation, scaling up the presently limited computational capacity of biological machines. The resulting benefits could be enormous with applications as varied as tools for in vivo diagnosis and treatment of diseases, and enhancing high-value biomolecule production in microbial bioreactors.”

Microsoft are funding a graduate student in the Wang lab under the Microsoft Research PhD Scholarship Program, which supports EPSRC iCASE awards.

Photo: Copyright Microsoft Research