April 02, 2013, 1:52 PM — Bioengineers at Stanford University have created a new type of biological transistor made from genetic materials. The scientists call this new invention the "transcriptor," and they say that it's the final step towards building a fully biological computer (read: a computer made from living cells).
A typical electronic transistor transmits data by controlling the flow of electrons. This new biological transcriptor does the same thing, except though the use of a genetic protein known as RNA polymerase, which travels along a strand of DNA. Using this flow of RNA, the researchers can reproduce the same sort of true-false answers that make up binary code, thus making it a computer.
RNA is normally used to relay DNA instructions to control a cell's natural processes. By harnessing the RNA, researchers can command an entire living cell. According to The Independent , the scientists say they can turn plant cells into environmental sensors and even command cancerous cells to stop dividing.
"Biological computers can be used to study and reprogram living systems, monitor environments and improve cellular therapeutics," said Drew Endy, a PhD assistant professor of bioengineering and the paper's senior author, in a release.
The researchers clearly state that their Transcriptor-based gates won't turn something into a computer on their own, but they are instrumental as the third and final component of a biological computer. To speed up the development of a full-on bio-computer, the researchers have also made the plans behind their transcriptor-based logic ("Boolean Integrase Logic") gates part of the public domain.
"Most of biotechnology has not yet been imagined, let alone made true," said Jerome Bonnet, PhD, a postdoctoral scholar in bioengineering and the paper's lead author, in a release. "By freely sharing important basic tools everyone can work better together."