(Photo : Creative Commons/Erik Derr)
Sometime soon, those looking for the latest and greatest high-tech gadget may only need to look within.
No, that's not a recommendation for any soul-searching. A group of scientists from Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif., have just announced a genetic transistor, a simple computer they built within living cells.
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It's a big step forward for the emerging field known as synthetic biology, the science of engineering biological systems to accomplish specific tasks.
Detailed in the March 28 issue of the journal Science, te researchers said they successfully crafted a transistor - the electronic switch critical to every computer - from DNA and RNA, the two biological molecules that hold the information necessary for living things to reproduce and grow.
Like the silicon transistors in regular computers, which control the flow of electrical impulses within computer chips, the biological transistor --- or transcriptor, as it's called --- controls the movement of an enzyme called RNA polymerase along a strand of the DNA molecule, the scientists explained.
That ability to manage those enzymes suggests it may be further possible for scientists to create simple biological computing units that could be programmed to monitor, even affect the functions of the living cells to which they are connected.
Those advances, in turn could, for example, lead to new bio-devices capable of detecting environmental changes in the environment, delivering drugs within the body or keeping an eye out for cells that show signs of becoming cancerous.
"We're going to be able to put computers inside any living cell you want," said lead researcher Drew Endy of Stanford's School of Engineering. "Any place you want a little bit of logic, a little bit of computation, a little bit of memory -- we're going to be able to do that."
But, he said, "we're not going to replace the silicon computers. We're not going to replace your phone or your laptop...but we're going to get computing working in places where silicon would never work."
Biology, said Endy, "is not just a science of discovery, but also a technology for making things."