International boffins, led by a computer scientist based in Nottingham, intend to produce what they describe as "a cell’s equivalent to a computer operating system", which would deliver living organisms that could be "reprogrammed" to produce almost anything biological - fresh human organs for transplant, amazing new food sources, tailored micro-organisms able to clean up pollution or suck carbon out of exhausts, maybe dragons or unicorns etc etc.
The British government has awarded new funding of £1m via the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), allowing Professor Natalio Krasnogor of the Nottingham uni’s School of Computer Science to act as lead boffin on the project, which will see his computing expertise applied, quite literally, to creating reprogrammable life.
“This EPSRC Leadership Fellowship will allow me to transfer my expertise in Computer Science and informatics into the wet lab," explains the prof.
“Currently, each time we need a cell that will perform a certain new function we have to recreate it from scratch which is a long and laborious process. Most people think all we have to do to modify behaviour is to modify a cell’s DNA but it’s not as simple as that — we usually find we get the wrong behaviour and then we are back to square one. If we succeed with this, in five years time we will be programming bacterial cells in the computer and compiling and storing its program into these new cells so they can readily execute them."
Apart from Krasnogor and his colleagues at Nottingham, the team will include computing experts, biologists and chemists at other universities in Scotland, the US, Spain and Israel.
Synthetic biology can already modify lifeforms by altering DNA, but this is a trial-and-error process and takes a long time to achieve much - and what is achieved may not be what was intended to start with. If Krasnogor and his colleagues can achieve their goal, designing tailored life-forms will become comparatively simple.
“We are talking about a highly ambitious goal leading to a fundamental breakthrough that will, ultimately, allow us to rapidly prototype, implement and deploy living entities that are completely new and do not appear in nature, adapting them so they perform new useful functions," says the professor. ®