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A computer kit could lead to better way to design synthetic molecules

SmolkeSlipping something small into cells to regulate gene expression has long been a goal of biomedical researchers. And there have been many efforts to do just that. Usually researchers concoct a teeny strip of microRNA, or miRNA, and hope it does the trick.

But now, researchers at Stanford's Department of Bioengineering have developed a computer model to take the guesswork out of designing miRNA. The model determines how to assemble a molecule so it will measure the level of a certain compound in a cell and then use that information to regulate the expression of a gene.

The research is featured in the current edition of Nature Methods, and senior author Christina Smolke, PhD, describes the process in a release issued this week:

"You start with an idea of what you want to do in the cell, and then you build and iterate on a design over and over until you reach something close to what you want," Smolke said. "As we design and build more sophisticated systems, we will want the ability to efficiently achieve precise quantitative behaviors, and being able to accurately predict relationships between the system inputs and outputs are important to achieving this goal."

She and Smolke's team — which includes former graduate student Ryan Bloom and former undergraduate Sally Winkler —tested the model on the well-known Wnt signaling pathway, which plays a key role in embryonic development, stem cell production and cancer. The synthesized miRNA correctly monitored the protein produced by the pathway, validating their model.

Becky Bach is a former park ranger who now spends her time writing about science or practicing yoga. She's a science writing intern in the Office of Communications and Public Affairs. 

Previously: A non-surgical test for brain cancer?, From plant to pill: Bioengineers aim to produce opium-based medicines without using poppies, Researchers engineer biological "devices" to program cells
Photo of Smolke by L.A. Cicero

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