Op-Ed: Living cells are now being programmed with computer code

Posted May 5, 2016 by John Boitnott
Cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer's and other diseases are now in the firing line more than ever with the advent of CRISPR technology and now, computer code that reprograms living cells.
Scientists have used a new gene-editing technique to manipulate cells to fight cancer with a one-yea...
Scientists have used a new gene-editing technique to manipulate cells to fight cancer with a one-year-old girl in Britain the first in the world to be treated
Spencer Platt, Getty/AFP/File
Real life science seems to be catching up with science fiction more and more every day. Most recently, MIT scientists have discovered how to program living cells. Scientists essentially just announced they can use computer programming languages to control the behavior and function of living things.
Describing the new innovation, a member of the research team, MIT professor of biological engineering Christopher Voigt, explains, “It is literally a programming language for bacteria. You use a text-based language, just like you're programming a computer. Then you take that text and you compile it and it turns it into a DNA sequence that you put into the cell, and the circuit runs inside the cell."
This isn’t the first time scientists have experimented with controlling cells through human innovations. Over the past 15 years, both biologists and engineers have designed different genetic parts to modify cell functions and add new ones. With these past projects, however, designing each circuit required great expertise and often came with a lot of trial and error. According to Voigt, "You have to have this really intimate knowledge of how those pieces are going to work and how they're going to come together."
On the contrary, this new programming language, which is based on a language commonly used to program computer chips called Verilog, requires no specific knowledge of genetic engineering. "You could be completely naive as to how any of it works. That's what's really different about this," Voigt says in a report by The Telegraph. "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.” This is great news for those new to programming and for scientists who want to attract diverse talent to come up with applications for this new programming language.
So far, the team from MIT has used the programming language on E.coli bacteria, but plans are in motion to start tests on other strains of bacteria that live in the human gut. The benefit of using this stomach bacteria is that scientists know it can exist in the human body without causing it harm.
Skeptics of the project note that this new technology, along with other DNA editing technologies like CRISPR, removes the realm of chance and blind happenstance from evolution, which may mean we can start to have a say in our biological destiny or control the biological destiny of other living things on our planet. It seems that the ethics of this power is a discussion for another time, however, and researchers are mostly positive about the new language.
Additional possible practical applications include creating ingestible bacteria that can aid in lactose processing, bacteria that can generate toxins in plants to ward off insect attacks, and yeast strains that regulate themselves and automatically shut off when producing harmful byproducts in fermentation reactions.
More abstract applications, which might come further down the line, include creating bacteria with the ability to detect and even treat cancer. This new programming language, combined with innovations like the creation of insulin-releasing cells to help diabetes treatment and the 3D pen that can successfully print stem cells, seems to be ushering in a new wave of the technical revolution: the age of living technology.