This biological microcomputer sprang from the mind of Drew Endy, PhD, an assistant professor of bioengineering at Stanford. In three scientific papers released over a 13-month span in 2012 and 2013, Endy and a team of researchers from his lab showed how they used ordinary genetic engineering techniques to turn the bacterium E. coli — that stalwart of the Petri dish — into a machine capable of the basic functions of a computer: logic, data storage and data transmission. They also showed that their techniques will work in any type of living cell, not just bacteria.
And while others have accomplished similar feats, Endy’s system has the singular advantage of being able to amplify the information flow.
“Amplification is what makes this system the best,” says Endy. “It’s the equivalent of the transistor in an electronic device. It’s what makes our computer really useful.”
An advocate of open-source technology (which, as with open-source software, makes its discoveries and technologies free to the public), he has made the instructions available free online. A video primer is also on YouTube (http://stan.md/15u6OtC); it’s been viewed nearly 30,000 times.