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Researchers engineer biological "devices" to program cells

Stanford bioengineer Christina Smolke, PhD, and colleagues have built biological "devices" capable of sensing disease states in cultured human cells and fine-tuning their own functions in response to the cell's internal signals, according to research recently published in Science. An article published today in the Stanford Report further describes the design and functionality of the new tools, which are called "sensor-actuator" devices:

The researchers built these devices by combining different pieces of DNA into one long stretch. The DNA is then put into cells that convert it to RNA, a slightly different version of genetic material that is frequently made by cells. The RNA molecule can then be read like a recipe by the cell's protein-making molecular machinery.

The sensor-actuator devices are built with efficient redesign in mind. Each piece of the device, whether the sensor or the protein-recipe actuator, can be swapped out for another version. This way, researchers can conveniently build a device to fit their particular needs ... The input could be any number of protein signals inside a cell and the output could be instructions for the cell to create a molecule that's easily detected by a researcher [or] could cause a diseased cell to kill itself.

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