They are engineering e-coli bacteria to behave in a way that will one day allow living cells to be programmed to act logically, just like a computer. Imagine if the intelligence of a super computer could be applied to the building blocks of life.
"What we're trying to do, is to be able to program a living cell in the same way that you would program a robot or program a computer," explains UCSF association professor Christopher Voigt.
Synthetic biologists are learning to program cells to behave in a way that may lead to better bio-fuels and medicines that are activated only when they sense disease.
"So, a cell is very much like a computer, in that it can take different inputs, perform logical operations on these inputs, and output some function. So for example, it might be if a do b, if c do d," says professor of biomedical engineering at Boston University James Collins. "Like a computer, as a result of synthetic biology advances, a cell can also be reprogrammed, or programmed with novel functions. So that now, instead of if a then b it could be if a then c, or if a then d."
That could have profound results in a number of industries.
"We're really focused in two major directions right now. One, is to truly turn the programming language for life into something that looks very much like a programming language for a computer, where somebody who is a genetic engineer can write code in the same way that an engineer at Google is programming one of their applications," Voigt says.
Scientists are now taking the technique a step further and programming biological circuits, armies of cells that can take on complex tasks.
"So much of the advances that have been made in synthetic biology over the last decade have focused on reprogramming an individual cell and seeing how it behaves. Voigt's team has shown you can engineer multiple cells and have them interact in a population to now create diverse and much more complicated functions," Collins says.
The colony of choice for researchers is e-coli, bacteria famous for its most common destructive force: food poisoning. But, successful research with it could help scientists make cells perform predictably and be applied at all levels of genetic engineering.
Scientists hope that eventually, the same circuits that allow a smart plant to be created could also be inserted into bio-fuels or human cells which could be used as therapeutics.