We’ve Figured Out How to Program Living Cells

Welcome to the age of living technology.

4. 5. 16 by Todd Jaquith
Janet Iwasa
Image by Janet Iwasa


The evolution of human technology has proceeded in lockstep with the biological evolution of our species. For millions of years we were content with our primitive Oldowan choppers and Acheulean bifaces; in the Neolithic, we started playing with more sophisticated tools, and the Bronze and Iron ages followed in quick succession.

Now, researchers at MIT have developed a programming language that will allow the toolmakers of the future to “program” living cells—outfitting them with DNA-encoded circuits that confer a host of new functions on the “hacked” organism.

Christopher Voigt, professor of biological engineering at MIT, 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.”

Essentially, you start with the ability you want to program into the bacterium—say, detecting the presence of certain harmful chemicals. You write up a program describing it, and a DNA sequence is created that will achieve the desired function.


And just like that, you’ve got a toxin-sniffing germ.

It’s Easy to Use

The new language, which was described in the April 1 issue of Science, has already been used to create biological circuits that can respond to up to three inputs in different ways. And its implications for medical technology, agriculture, and even biological computing are simply staggering.

But the really revolutionary aspect of the new programming language is that it can be used by literally anyone—you needn’t have any training in genetic or biological engineering. Hell, you don’t even need to know what a gene is.

It’s genetic engineering for the masses. The designers even plan to make the language’s user interface universally available on the Internet.


“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,” says Voigt.

The designers based their language on Verilog, a popular coding language for programming computer chips. The key to making the whole thing work was tailoring the language to the complex conditions within cells; they had to make computing elements like logic gates that could be slipped into a bacterial genome.

Furthermore, the language is easily customizable. Right now, the genetic elements are specialized for the E. coli genome; but the researchers are working on a means for allowing designers to write a single code, which could then be translated to fit the genomes of other organisms.

And the speed of the new method means that DNA circuits that would normally take years to design and build now require the mere touch of a button.


Looking Ahead

The appearance of this new biological programming language represents something of a game-changer. Along with other techniques, like CRISPR, it removes evolution—human or otherwise—from the uncertain realm of chance and blind happenstance, and it compresses its timescale from the geologic to the merely day-to-day.

It means we can start to have a say in our biological destiny, and that we can likewise control the destinies of the living things with which we share the planet. Whether that’s too much power and responsibility for any one species to wield—especially a species prone to some pretty whopping lapses in judgment—is a discussion for another time.

In the meantime, the researchers are looking to design practical applications for the technology—including ingestible bacteria that can aid in lactose processing, bacteria that can colonize plant roots and generate toxins to ward off insect attacks, and self-regulating yeast strains that automatically “shut off” when producing harmful byproducts in fermentation reactions.

Welcome to the newest technological revolution: The age of living technology.


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