In a new study in Nature, researchers at ETH Zurich describe how they programmed mammalian cells to work on Boolean logic, says Popular Science's Rebecca Boyle. The "biologic logic gate" can do binary calculations, Boyle says. The researchers describe it as a "cellular calculator." Using specific proteins that bind to RNA and DNA, the researchers are able to control the expression of certain genes in mammalian cells. "Bioengineers led by Martin Fussenegger at ETH Zurich built a molecular logic gate using two substances as the transistor elements: the molecule phloretin, which is used to activate nerve fibers and comes from apples, and the widely used antibiotic erythromycin," Boyle says. "The substances work as Boolean switches." The gene pathways can then be controlled depending on which of these substances are present, and triggers the production of certain proteins.
"By combining several of these logic gates, Fussenegger's team was able to build circuits that could perform basic digital computations," Boyle says. "They could even perform two different input and output signals in parallel. The practical purpose of something like this would be to monitor metabolic activity, for instance," or to create a biological network that could interface with implanted electronic medical devices.