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Making biological circuits more practical, predictable

Posted: 26 Nov 2014 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:MIT? biological circuit? biosensing?

Researchers at MIT found a way to minimise the unpredictability of biological circuits by allowing the circuits to behave nearly as predictably as their electronic counterparts. The impetus for this study is that, despite having the individual components of such biological circuits to have precise and predictable responses, integrating more components tend to make the outcome less predictable.

The findings are published in the journal Nature Biotechnology, in a paper by associate professor of mechanical engineering Domitilla Del Vecchio and professor of biological engineering Ron Weiss.

The lead author of the paper is Deepak Mishra, an MIT graduate student in biological engineering. Other authors include recent master's students Phillip Rivera in mechanical engineering and Allen Lin in electrical engineering and computer science.

MIT researchers develop a 'practical' biological circuit

Left to right: Ron Weiss, professor of biological engineering; Domitilla Del Vecchio, associate professor of mechanical engineering; and Deepak Mishra, MIT graduate student in biological engineering. Photo: Brian Teague.

There are many potential uses for such synthetic biological circuits, Del Vecchio and Weiss explained. "One specific one we're working on is biosensing: cells that can detect specific molecules in the environment and produce a specific output in response," Del Vecchio said. One example: cells that could detect markers that indicate the presence of cancer cells, and then trigger the release of molecules targeted to kill those cells.

It is important for such circuits to be able to discriminate accurately between cancerous and noncancerous cells, so they don't unleash their killing power in the wrong places, Weiss said. To do that, robust information-processing circuits created from biological elements within a cell become "highly critical," Weiss says.

To date, that kind of robust predictability has not been feasible, in part because of feedback effects when multiple stages of biological circuitry are introduced. The problem arises because unlike in electronic circuits, where one component is physically connected to the next by wires that ensure information is always flowing in a particular direction, biological circuits are made up of components that are all floating around together in the complex fluid environment of a cell's interior.

Information flow is driven by the chemical interactions of the individual components, which ideally should affect only other specific components. But in practice, attempts to create such biological linkages have often produced results that differed from expectations.

"If you put the circuit together and you expect answer 'X,' and instead you get answer 'Y,' that could be highly problematical," Del Vecchio noted.

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