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Programming Cells to Do the Work

Synthetic Biology May Eventually Lead to New Treatments for Disease

James J. Collins wants to turn living cells into tiny robots that can be programmed to take on tasks that range from attacking tumors in the body to guiding the development of stem cells in the lab.

That goal remains distant. But in recent years, Dr. Collins 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.

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