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Ribocomputing: leveraging RNA for computation in the cell

“Ribocomputing devices” ( yellow) can be used by synthetic biologists to sense and interpret multiple signals in cells and logically instruct their ribosomes (blue and green) to produce different proteins. Credit: Wyss Institute at Harvard University

RNA, ribonucleic acid, is used in our cells to transport information coded in the DNA to the ribosome and then to manufacture protein.  Some speculates that RNA pre-dates the DNA in the evolution process since it is the essential component for proteins production and these are the building blocks of life.

RNA can be seen as a sort of manufacturing plant directing the assembly of proteins and scientists have now found a way to use it as a programmable computer at molecular level to produce at molecular level bio-sensors, drugs and more.

Synthetic biologists researchers at the Wyss Institute at Harvard University have created ribocomputers based on precise assembling of precisely designed synthetic RNA strands. These ribocomputers can make logic decisions like a silicon based computer using the same AND OR NOT operators. However they are not using voltage for processing but chemical compounds. As an example the presence of a toxin in the environment activate a specific RNA strand initiating a “computation” that can end in the production of a specific protein to antagonise the toxin.

RNA needs a hosting organism to operate and researchers have been using bacteria (Escherichia Coli) but ribocomputers should be able to work also in other cells, including our own. Imagine: implanting a ribocomputer that automatically produces a drug when need arise at the cellular level. It would be an amazing form of augmenting our capability to react to noxious substances!

That is still science fiction but this research shows that science is getting closer to science fiction…

About Roberto Saracco

Roberto Saracco fell in love with technology and its implications long time ago. His background is in math and computer science. He's currently the Chair of the Symbiotic Autonomous Systems Initiative of IEEE-FDC. Until April 2017 he led the EIT Digital Italian Node and up to September 2018 he was the Head of the EIT Digital Industrial Doctoral School. Previously, up to December 2011, he was the Director of the Telecom Italia Future Centre in Venice, looking at the interplay of technology evolution, economics and society. At the turn of the century he led a World Bank-Infodev project to stimulate entrepreneurship in Latin America. He is a senior member of IEEE where he leads the Industry Advisory Board within the Future Directions Committee. He teaches a Master course on Technology Forecasting and Market impact at the University of Trento. He has published over 100 papers in journals and magazines and 14 books. He writes a daily blog,  http://sites.ieee.org/futuredirections/category/blog/, with commentary on innovation in various technology and market areas.

One comment


    It isn’t science fiction. Our universe is already using DNA CODE from a computer simulating our universe.

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