In Brief
Researchers at MIT have developed a method that allows both digital and analog computing in living cells. This means far more sophisticated developments in gene-based circuits can be made, like those used in the medical industry.

While synthetic biological systems tend to focus on either one of the two: analog or digital processing by cells, scientists from MIT can now integrate both processing methods into living cells, raising the capability of gene-based circuits to a far more sophisticated level.

“Living cells are capable of performing complex computations on the environmental signals they encounter,” MIT says in the press release. “These computations can be continuous, or analogue, in nature — the way eyes adjust to gradual changes in the light levels. They can also be digital, involving simple on or off processes, such as a cell’s initiation of its own death.”

“Digital is basically a way of computing in which you get intelligence out of very simple parts, because each part only does a very simple thing, but when you put them all together you get something that is very smart,” says Timothy Lu, associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science and of biological engineering, and head of the Synthetic Biology Group at MIT’s Research Laboratory of Electronics, who led the research.