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Synthetic Biology Holds Promise for Disease Treatments

The Wall Street Journal has published an interesting read on synthetic biology:

"In recent years, James Collins from Boston University and other researchers in a young field called synthetic biology have added new genes into bacteria and other cells to create simple circuits that mimic the basic processes that drive computers.

A team from Dr. Collins’s lab at Boston University recently taught E. coli bacteria to “count,” for example, by inserting custom-designed DNA into the bacteria that induces the bacteria to emit a fluorescent protein after being exposed to a specific number of chemical pulses. In an earlier study, Dr. Collins and his colleagues designed DNA that, when added to a cell, allows researchers to turn a gene on or off.

Scientists have started to use combinations of these circuits to program bacteria to perform more-complex tasks. In a 2006 study, researchers programmed bacteria to cluster around and enter cancer cells—behavior that may someday be used to attack and destroy patients’ tumors.

At its core, the field represents a fundamental shift in the way scientists approach cells. For decades, biochemistry has been the defining model, with researchers looking at the chemical reactions at the heart of biology. But while synthetic biologists work with biochemical reactions, they borrow heavily from engineering, designing and testing circuits that mimic those on computer chips. They look at cellular behavior like an electrical engineer would look at a wiring diagram."

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