In the field of synthetic biology, bioengineers piece together biological parts to make a system.
This is a similar process to electrical engineers designing electrical circuits. However, electrical circuits behave predictably.
In a new study, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have developed a device that will enable biological circuits to behave more predictable.
When biological circuits perform properly, they can produce synthetic fuels and drugs. At the MIT lab, the researchers are using the circuits for biosensing.
For their research that means “cells that can detect specific molecules in the environment and produce a specific output in response,” said Domitilla Del Vecchio, an associate professor of mechanical engineering at MIT.
They are attempting to create synthetic cells that can detect a marker in a cancer cell and inject a chemical that will destroy it.
“It is important for such circuits to be able to discriminate accurately between cancerous and noncancerous cells, so they don’t unleash their killing power in the wrong places,” said Ron Weiss, a professor of biological engineering at MIT.
The reason electrical circuits are more predictable is that the components are connected by wires. Components in biological circuits are not always connected, according to Weiss.
To address this problem, the researchers created a load driver, similar to that used in electronic circuits, which provides a buffer between a signal and an output.
“The addition of this load driver could escalate the complexity of circuits you could design,” said Del Vecchio. It could also be used to monitor glucose levels of diabetics and automatically inject insulin when needed.
“Efforts in synthetic biology to create complex gene circuits are often hindered by unanticipated or uncharacterized interactions between submodules of the circuits. These interactions alter the input-output characteristics of the submodules, leading to undesirable circuit behavior,” according to James Collins, a professor of biomedical engineering at Boston University.
“Del Vecchio and Weiss have made a major advance for the field by creating a genetic device that can account for and correct for such interactions, leading to more predictable circuit behavior,” Collins added.