“The human body itself is a large computer. Its metabolism has drawn on the computing power of trillions of cells since time immemorial,” said Martin Fussenegger – lead researcher of the team which built the world’s first dual-core bio-computer using gene-editing tool called CRISPR. CRISPR stands for regularly inter-spaced short palindromic repeats.
Synthetic biology has long tried to control gene expressions using technologies similar to what we see in the digital world. The circuits used in computers depend on a single input in the form of electrons and are able to execute billions of commands per second. In comparison, a human cell is much slower. A living organism’s functioning can be thought of in terms of a computer. The cells act like logic gates; like the electrons, they take information from the outside world, process it and respond with metabolic processes.
Even though human cells are much slower in comparison to electrons, synthetic biology has yet not been able to replicate the enormous metabolic computational capacity of a human cell. However, in a revolutionary breakthrough, researches at ETH Zurich have found a way to use biological components to construct a dual-core bio CPU that accepts different kinds of programming. They did this by first modifying the gene-editing tool. The gene-editing tool is usually used by scientists to edit gene expressions by using data from RNA sequences.
Researchers at ETH Zurich went a step further. They used a special version of the CRISPR-Cas9 protein to form the core of the processor. With the help of the RNA sequences, the Cas9 studies the expression of a particular gene, which in turn creates certain proteins as an output. With this approach, researchers can program scalable circuits in human cells. The bio-computer can compare two inputs or add two binary numbers and deliver two outputs. This bio-computer could be used to diagnose and treat diseases.
“Imagine a microtissue with billions of cells, each equipped with its own dual-core processor. Such ‘computational organs’ could theoretically attain computing power that far outstrips that of a digital supercomputer—and using just a fraction of the energy. A cell computer could detect biological signals in the body, such as certain metabolic products or chemical messengers, process them, and respond to them accordingly,” said Fussenegger.