Friday, April 24, 2009

Biological Computing

So I caught the end of the interview with Jim Collins, Professor of Biomedical Engineering at Boston University on Science Friday today, The article here is more of a preview and doesn't do the show justice. They've been able to turn yeast cells on and off.

Think electrical engineering and circuits and on/off in computer switches. Cool, huh? They use the same terminology in describing what they are doing with these yeast cells - networks, switches, circuits.

Of course, it's far too slow to do anything with, and there are the usual science fiction horror movie type worries about tinkering with cells that are programmed to tinker with humans, but yeah, anyway, it was a fun show to listen to. It sure woke my brain up after I thought I was all Friday-fried.

He talked about the possibilities that they are investigating: programming cells to attack cancer, or to produce things for the body, such as insulin - using oscillation they could set intervals for the cells to produce it, or program other cells to detect blood sugar levels and respond by signaling other cells to make insulin.

You know, that is exactly how our bodies work already. We have these glands that produce insulin when sugar levels indicate the need. But for diabetics, those communication systems in the body have broken down, and this could be a biological replacement. Surely this could work. But what if it got out of whack? The communication signals break down and the cells pump out too much? Hmmm. This is just the very early idea stages of this field, but like he said, it is of very high interest now to students and companies. Those who get involved in this will likely make some very useful and interesting technologies. I daydream of functioning mini-organs and programmable medicine delivery (and get squeamish thinking of what could go awry - science fiction has planted a strong seed of caution in us, has it not?).

The team Jim Collins is working with has a published paper at Nature Biotechnology; all I can view online is the abstract without a subscription, but I'm almost tempted to make a request at the local library so I can read it. I once requested one of the Dune series via the interlibrary service when I was going through that huge series and the Tulsa library did not have one of the series - it's as easy as clicking a few buttons.

Aigh - it's exciting! I wish I could be in a lab poking around at tiny cells, taking copious notes, writing papers.

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