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Bacterial cells compute logarithms

Posted: 17 May 2013 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:logarithms? analogue? sensors?

Inspired by how analogue electronic circuits function, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) created synthetic computation circuits by combining existing engineered genes. The engineers transformed bacterial cells into living calculators that can compute logarithms, divide, and take square roots, using three or fewer genetic parts.

The circuits perform those calculations in an analogue fashion by exploiting natural biochemical functions that are already present in the cell rather than by reinventing them with digital logic, thus making them more efficient than the digital circuits pursued by most synthetic biologists, according to Rahul Sarpeshkar and Timothy Lu.

Synthetic biology circuits

Synthetic biology circuits can perform analogue computations such as taking logarithms and square roots in living cells. Illustration courtesy of MIT researchers.

Sarpeshkar leads the Analogue Circuits and Biological Systems group at MIT while Lu is assistant professor of electrical engineering and computer science and biological engineering.

Analogue computation would be particularly useful for designing cellular sensors for pathogens or other molecules, the researchers say. Analogue sensing could also be combined with digital circuits to create cells that can take a specific action triggered by a threshold concentration of certain molecules.

"You could do a lot of upfront sensing with the analogue circuits because they're very rich and a relatively small amount of parts can give you a lot of complexity, and have that output go into a circuit that makes a decision-is this true or not?" says Lu, an assistant professor of electrical engineering and computer science and biological engineering.

Advantages of analogue

Sarpeshkar has previously identified thermodynamic similarities between analogue transistor circuits and the chemical circuits that take place inside cells. In 2011, he took advantage of those similarities to model biological interactions between DNA and proteins in an electronic circuit, using only eight transistors.

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