Skip to main content
Premium Trial:

Request an Annual Quote

The Auto-Destruct Sequence Has Been Initiated


Many e-mail programs let you program them to recognize and delete unwanted messages or junk e-mail based on keywords found in the text or subject line, says Not Exactly Rocket Science's Ed Yong, and a Harvard researcher has found a way to apply that principle to cancer cells. Zhen Xie, who published his work in Science, developed a "genetic logic circuit" that prompts cells to self-destruct if it reads levels of five molecules within itself that signals the cell may become cancerous, Yong says. In other words, the cell reads itself and checks for certain key molecules in combination, much like the e-mail program looks for keywords, and if the program's parameters are satisfied, the cell kills itself. Xie worked with HeLa cells, a common line of cervical cancer cells widely used in cancer research, and identified five microRNAs that differentiate HeLa cells from healthy cells. Then, Yong says, Xie created five genetic switches that would only flip if these five microRNAs were found at sufficiently high levels within the cells. The switches control the Bax gene, which controls cell death. If the circuit is introduced into a cell that carries these five microRNAs and the switches are flipped, then voilà — instant self-destruction, Yong says. The idea is to cause the cells to kill themselves before they can become problematic. Xie plans to start testing his circuit in animal models, but there's a long way to go before the concept could be used to diagnose or treat human. However, Xie's study proves that the principle is possible to execute, Yong says, adding, "You can imagine a future where our cells are loaded with simple biological computers that monitor our health at a molecular level. It's a far-off future, but not an unreachable one."

The Scan

US Booster Eligibility Decision

The US CDC director recommends that people at high risk of developing COVID-19 due to their jobs also be eligible for COVID-19 boosters, in addition to those 65 years old and older or with underlying medical conditions.

Arizona Bill Before Judge

The Arizona Daily Star reports that a judge is weighing whether a new Arizona law restricting abortion due to genetic conditions is a ban or a restriction.

Additional Genes

Wales is rolling out new genetic testing service for cancer patients, according to BBC News.

Science Papers Examine State of Human Genomic Research, Single-Cell Protein Quantification

In Science this week: a number of editorials and policy reports discuss advances in human genomic research, and more.