Slovenian Cellular Computer with Prospects for Health and Industry

Ljubljana, 22 December - A group of Slovenian scientists recently managed to translate the principle of logic circuits, which are usually applied in electronics, to human cells. This opens up numerous opportunities in health care and industry, as such cellular computers can be manipulated in a similar way as simple electronic devices.

For example, it will be possible to set cellular computers - ordinary human cells with additional elements that balance the transcription of genes - so that they produce healing agents based on the signals from the environment.

According to head of the biotechnology laboratory of the National Chemistry Institute Roman Jerala, the idea of cellular computers was developed some ten years ago. Scientists have already managed to create functioning systems, which however performed each logic function differently and were thus limited to simple tasks.

Slovenian scientists from the Chemistry institute, the EN-FIST excellence centre and the Ljubljana Faculty of Computer and Information Science meanwhile managed to translate to human cells the principle of logic NOR gates, from which any logic function can be developed in the computer world. "This combination enables us to develop considerably higher complexity," Jerala said.

For instance, Apollo Guidance Computer, a digital computer produced for the Apollo programme, contained several thousands integrated circuits, each containing a single 3-input NOR gate, Jerala said, stressing however that cellular computers will probably never be able to compete with electronic computers when it comes to computing, as their purpose will be completely different.

The team led by Jerala is interested primarily in therapeutic application, meaning the use of cellular computers to release healing agents in the right moment and in the right quantity. "Based on the collected signals, a cell could recognise that there is an inflammation and start releasing anti-inflammatory bodies or other agents," he explained.

Cellular computers will also be interesting for industrial application, for example in the production of biopharmaceuticals. "In production we usually want to have control of the behaviour of cells. We will be able to direct them either with light or with chemicals which regulate the switching of logic gates."

According to Jerala, what is also important about the achievement is that it proves that cells can be manipulated with an engineering, as a cellular computer can be constructed by applying a principle similar to that for electronic computers.

"Let me remind you that first transistors were rather unreliable and simple, but their technology has developed exceptionally in the last few decades and we will certainly look at today's achievements in synthetic biology after a similarly long period as a pioneer era of technology, which will be extremely important and widespread," Jerala believes.