Here is, once again, information that may simultaneously fill us with wonder at the feats of human genius, and frighten us about its ability to cross all limits. Researchers at MIT have just developed a programming language capable of modifying living organisms. This discovery is revolutionary because scientists have succeeded in coding living things in the same way that a computer program is coded.
IImagine being able to write a few lines of code, like all the computer scientists in the world do. Then compile this code so that it can be recognized by a living organism, such as a cell or a bacterium, and inject it into its DNA. The objective: to give it new functions or direct its actions. A science fiction dream? No, a reality developed by the team of Professor Christopher Voigt, biologist and geneticist at MIT, and published in the journal Science on the 1ster last April (and it's not an April Fools' Fools' Fools' Fools' Fools' Fools' Fools' Fools' Fools' Fools' Fools' Fools' Fools' Fools' Fools' Fools' Fools' Fools' Fools' Fools' Fools' Fools' Fools' Fools' Fools' Fools' Fools' Fools' Fools' Fools' Fools' Fools' Fools' Fools' Fools' Fools' Fools' Fools' Fools' Fools' Fools' Fools' Fools' Fools' Fools' Fools' Fools' Fools' Fools' Fools' Fools' Fools' Fools' Fools' Fools' Fools' Fools'.)
15 years of preparation
It took 15 years of work to develop the programming language. It looks like every other language in the world and is written with text. So all that is needed is any editor to write lines of code and create functions and scripts. This language was built from a language widely used to program logic circuits in electronics, Verilog HDL. It is very similar to the C language that all developers in the world normally know by heart.
It is then "enough" to compile this code to integrate it into DNA.
Let us stop for a moment on this point. For some years now, researchers have been able to design many genetic components such as sensors, memory switches or biological clocks that can be combined to change or add functions to cells. But the design of each circuit is extremely complex and requires rare expertise. In addition, the process necessarily involves a great deal of trial and error, resulting in costs and many failures.
Chris Voigt, in his lab at MIT...
It is this laborious step that Christopher Voigt's invention is able to literally revolutionize. Indeed, it is, the language developed at MIT allows you to program many circuits with different functions in a short time and with an unparalleled success rate. It is thus possible to program sensors that can detect components such as oxygen or glucose, but also environmental conditions such as temperature or acidity. The most difficult part, according to Voigt, has been to design the "logic gates" used in the circuits so that they do not interfere with each other once introduced into the complex environment of the living cell.
Biological circuit boards in living organisms
Questioned by the magazine New ScientistThe researcher explains that the technology used is, in principle, the same as that used in the design of a microchip: "... the technology used is the same as that used in the design of a microchip. Every step in the process is the same - except instead of mapping a circuit on silicon, we do it on DNA. ». The system developed by MIT scientists, called the Celloconverts code lines written with Verilog into a DNA wiring diagram. A DNA strand producing a specified function is thus generated and then inserted into the cell or living organism, e.g. a bacterium. The MIT teams claim to have succeeded in making the largest biological circuit ever built, with seven logic gates and DNA strands consisting of 12,000 long units.
Chris Voigt says it's a new programming language for living organisms that has been invented. A language that seems to give access to manipulations of biblical simplicity: " You use a text-based language, just like you program a computer. Then you take that text and you compile it, and it turns into a DNA sequence that you put into the cell, and the circuitry works inside the cell. ». Simple, isn't it?
A dizzying field of applications
What is more worrying is the continuation of the researcher's remarks, which were reported in the British daily newspaper The Telegraph. He states that users of the new programming language do not need any special knowledge of genetic engineering; " You could be completely gullible about how it all works. ». He goes on, barely boasting, promising a future platform for free open use on the Internet: " You could be a high school student and go to the web server; you type in the program you want, and it spits out a DNA sequence. "Replace "high school student" with hacker, hacker, hacker, madman, terrorist or any other similar term, and you'll probably break out in a cold sweat.
But, let's stay positive; indeed, scientists believe that a gigantic field of applications is opening up. For example, Voigt and his colleagues are working on bacteria that live on the roots of plants. They're trying to give them genes that trap nitrogen from the atmosphere and turn it into fertilizer like a plant would, but biologically this time. In the same way, to avoid the use of pesticides, they believe they can modify certain bacteria so that they rid plants of pests. Voigt adds, "I think that's a good idea. We are about to see cells manipulated to transform them into factories that can fulfill therapeutic applications. We're thinking of targeted drugs to fight certain cancers.... More prosaically, Voigt adds that "Modified bacteria could be added to the yoghurts we eat to produce substances that promote intestinal health. ». He goes on to imagine that oil companies could develop intelligent bacteria that clean up oil spills, for example: " You can charge a sensor that responds to oil by activating an enzyme that degrades the oil. ». With this type of tool, imagination has no limits.
Christina Agapakis of Ginkgo BioWorksthought that the main beneficiaries will be companies that do not necessarily have the expertise in biology. « As the engineering process for organizations becomes easier, less expensive and more reliable, more opportunities for new applications will open up in different industries. "she says.
For Drew Endy, a leading authority on synthetic biology at Stanford University, the work done by his colleagues at MIT is another demonstration of how synthetic biology will become mainstream. « I think, he says, that biology programmers will become more mundane than computer programmers. "
A power beyond us?
With this discovery from MIT, we are entering a new playground. Professor Voigt's programming language is similar to CRIPPR, which we report regularly in UP'.
Indeed, these revolutionary tools are capable of modifying not only living things but also the entire evolutionary process that has brought all the organisms inhabiting this planet to the present day. The uncertain domain of chance or chance is now controllable. The long time necessary for organisms driven by the natural march of evolution is now compressed into a short time, the time of a computer click. These inventions also mean that we now have a say in our biological destiny, and that we can also control the destinies of the living beings with whom we share the planet. So much power entrusted to a species that has so many times shown its dizzying failings!