Living cells are capable of performing complex computations on the environmental signals they encounter.
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.
Synthetic biological systems, in contrast, have tended to focus on either analogue or digital processing, limiting the range of applications for which they can be used.
But now a team of researchers at MIT has developed a technique to integrate both analogue and digital computation in living cells, allowing them to form gene circuits capable of carrying out complex processing operations.
The synthetic circuits, presented in a paper published today in the journal Nature Communications, are capable of measuring the level of an analogue input, such as a particular chemical relevant to a disease, and deciding whether the level is in the right range to turn on an output, such as a drug that treats the disease.