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New DNA-based transistor brings computing to a biological level

Researchers at Stanford University have developed the transcriptor, a logical device similar to a transistor, that uses DNA and RNA instead of electrons and circuitry

Computing has always been related to electronics, but all that is about to change thanks to a new DNA based logic component created by Stanford University. The component, named the transcriptor, fills a similar function to that of the electronic transistor, which revolutionized computing. The difference between the two is that the transcriptor uses DNA and RNA molecules instead of electrons and circuitry to fulfill its function.

The transcriptor will allow engineers access to the inner workings of a cell in ways never before possible, both facilitating their use for recording the cell’s reaction to various forms of stimuli, and also allowing for certain cell functions, like reproduction, to be turned on and off as needed. A very exciting application is in the direct manipulation of cell function: "Biological computers can be used to study and reprogram living systems, monitor environments and improve cellular therapeutics," said Drew Endy, PhD, who is the senior author of the paper which detailed the transcriptor.


Dr. Drew Endy, showing off his scientist pose


The transcriptor was created by careful use of enzymes and functions by limiting the flow of the protein RNA polymerase along DNA molecules, in much the same way as the transistor controls the flow of electrons through a circuit. Controlling this flow has allowed biological engineers to construct logic gates, which can answer any true or false question that might arise within the biological context of a cell.


The transcriptor isn’t a computer in itself, but does constitute one of the three basic functions of a computer as it’s capable of performing logic operations (the other two basic functions being storing and transmitting information). Ultimately, the age of the biological computer isn’t far off, and to speed it’s arrival, the researchers have contributed all of their work to the public domain so that it can be utilized by everyone. "The potential applications are limited only by the imagination of the researcher," said co-author Monica Ortiz. Thus, getting the technology to as many hands as possible is a pretty surefire way of seeing the possibilities of the technology as quickly as possible.

David F.
A grad student in experimental physics, David is fascinated by science, space and technology. When not buried in lecture books, he enjoys movies, gaming and mountainbiking

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