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Scientists develop biological transistor that can command living cells

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DNA strand
DNA strand

Fully biological computers are getting closer to reality. Scientists at Stanford University today announced they have created a new type of transistor, the most basic part of a computer (and almost all other modern electronics), that is made entirely using genetic material, and works inside of living bacteria. The new biological transistor is actually better than its inorganic counterpart in some ways, according to the researchers, who say their device will be able to help build fully functioning computers within the cells of living organisms — plants and animals alike — in the future. Their full findings appear today in the journal Science.

The device could tell cancerous cells to stop dividing

The new device is called a "transcriptor." It's a microscopic piece of a DNA molecule inside a living cell that Stanford researchers genetically engineered to control the flow of another important molecule, RNA, as though it were an electrical current. RNA is responsible for translating DNA instructions in a cell's natural processes, so by controlling it, researchers can command an entire living cell. They could tell cancerous cells to stop dividing after they reach a certain number, or turn plant cells into sensors for monitoring the environment, as one scientist involved in the work told The Independent. The transcriptor can also be used to build more efficient types of circuits than are possible using all synthetic materials.

The researchers released some of their blueprints under a public domain license, which they hope will be used by other scientists to help speed up work on the overall goal of building a complete biocomputer. In February, a separate team at the University of Massachusetts published their own research on a similar, but slightly less complex genetic transistor. Still, even with all of these people working on the idea, it's probably going to be several more years before we get our hands on a living, breathing, oozing machine à la ExistenZ.