Scientists at the University of Nottingham are attempting to create re-programmable cells inspired by computer operating systems. The research goes beyond the traditional scope of biological inquiry, understanding how living organisms work, to create new biological systems not found in nature.
The project combines the expertise of scientists in a number of different specialties. An important part of the research involves developing better computer models of cell behavior. To accomplish this task, biologists are joined by experts in computer science and informatics in the lab.
The researchers have already successfully programmed individual cells to complete tasks. The next step is to do the same with more complex organisms. Currently, the research is focused on e.coli bacteria.
The multi-disciplinary research is being conducted at the University of Nottingham, under the leadership of Professor Natalio Krasnogor, head of the Interdisciplinary Computing and Complex Systems Research Group.
Professor Krasnogor has been granted a leadership fellowship worth more than £1 million by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council to fund the project. The scientific team in Nottingham is being assisted by a number of colleges from universities in the US, Scotland, Israel and Spain.
Professor Krasnogor describes the goal of the project as creating “a basic operating system for a biological cell.” He hopes that in the near future we will be able to compile, store and execute programs in cells.
This research allows scientists to quickly alter the behavior of biological systems without having to start from scratch every time. One of the benefits of re-programmable cells is to accelerate biological research. An accelerated schedule could lead to new areas of study as well as practical applications.
Scientists are hopeful that re-programmable cells could revolutionize a number of areas of study and help solve some important global problems.
For instance, organisms could be programmed to help reduce and remove pollution. They could be designed to counteract some of the negative environmental effects of using fossil fuels by capturing excess carbon. Heavy metals and other pollutants could be removed from vital water sources.
Medicine is another field that could clearly benefit from re-programmable cell technology. Easily tailored cells could allow doctors to better serve the needs of individual patients by enabling better drug delivery methods and treatments with reduced side effects. There is even a chance that new organs could be grown for transplant patients.