Navigation Links
Cell circuits remember their history

CAMBRIDGE, MA -- MIT engineers have created genetic circuits in bacterial cells that not only perform logic functions, but also remember the results, which are encoded in the cell's DNA and passed on for dozens of generations.

The circuits, described in the Feb. 10 online edition of Nature Biotechnology, could be used as long-term environmental sensors, efficient controls for biomanufacturing, or to program stem cells to differentiate into other cell types.

"Almost all of the previous work in synthetic biology that we're aware of has either focused on logic components or on memory modules that just encode memory. We think complex computation will involve combining both logic and memory, and that's why we built this particular framework to do so," says Timothy Lu, an MIT assistant professor of electrical engineering and computer science and biological engineering and senior author of the Nature Biotechnology paper.

Lead author of the paper is MIT postdoc Piro Siuti. Undergraduate John Yazbek is also an author.

More than logic

Synthetic biologists use interchangeable genetic parts to design circuits that perform a specific function, such as detecting a chemical in the environment. In that type of circuit, the target chemical would generate a specific response, such as production of green fluorescent protein (GFP).

Circuits can also be designed for any type of Boolean logic function, such as AND gates and OR gates. Using those kinds of gates, circuits can detect multiple inputs. In most of the previously engineered cellular logic circuits, the end product is generated only as long as the original stimuli are present: Once they disappear, the circuit shuts off until another stimulus comes along.

Lu and his colleagues set out to design a circuit that would be irreversibly altered by the original stimulus, creating a permanent memory of the event. To do this, they drew on memory circuits that Lu and colleagues designed in 2009. Those circuits depend on enzymes known as recombinases, which can cut out stretches of DNA, flip them, or insert them. Sequential activation of those enzymes allows the circuits to count events happening inside a cell.

Lu designed the new circuits so that the memory function is built into the logic gate itself. With a typical cellular AND gate, the two necessary inputs activate proteins that together turn on expression of an output gene. However, in the new circuits, the inputs stably alter regions of DNA that control GFP production. These regions, known as promoters, recruit the cellular proteins responsible for transcribing the GFP gene into messenger RNA, which then directs protein assembly.

For example, in one circuit described in the paper, two DNA sequences called terminators are interposed between the promoter and the output gene (GFP, in this case). Each of these terminators inhibits the transcription of the output gene and can be flipped by a different recombinase enzyme, making the terminator inactive.

Each of the circuit's two inputs turns on production of one of the recombinase enzymes needed to flip a terminator. In the absence of either input, GFP production is blocked. If both are present, both terminators are flipped, resulting in their inactivation and subsequent production of GFP.

Once the DNA terminator sequences are flipped, they can't return to their original state the memory of the logic gate activation is permanently stored in the DNA sequence. The sequence also gets passed on for at least 90 generations. Scientists wanting to read the cell's history can either measure its GFP output, which will stay on continuously, or if the cell has died, they can retrieve the memory by sequencing its DNA.

Using this design strategy, the researchers can create all two-input logic gates and implement sequential logic systems. "It's really easy to swap things in and out," says Lu, who is also a member of MIT's Synthetic Biology Center. "If you start off with a standard parts library, you can use a one-step reaction to assemble any kind of function that you want."

Long-term memory

Such circuits could also be used to create a type of circuit known as a digital-to-analog converter. This kind of circuit takes digital inputs for example, the presence or absence of single chemicals and converts them to an analog output, which can be a range of values, such as continuous levels of gene expression.

For example, if the cell has two circuits, each of which expresses GFP at different levels when they are activated by their specific input, those inputs can produce four different analog output levels. Moreover, by measuring how much GFP is produced, the researchers can figure out which of the inputs were present.

That type of circuit could offer better control over the production of cells that generate biofuels, drugs or other useful compounds. Instead of creating circuits that are always on, or using promoters that need continuous inputs to control their output levels, scientists could transiently program the circuit to produce at a certain level. The cells and their progeny would always remember that level, without needing any more information.

Used as environmental sensors, such circuits could also provide very precise long-term memory. "You could have different digital signals you wanted to sense, and just have one analog output that summarizes everything that was happening inside," Lu says.

This platform could also allow scientists to more accurately control the fate of stem cells as they develop into other cell types. Lu is now working on engineering cells to follow sequential development steps, depending on what kinds of inputs they receive from the environment.


Contact: Sarah McDonnell
Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Related biology news :

1. 1 of the key circuits in regulating genes involved in producing blood stem cells is deciphered
2. Morphing DNA hydrogel flows like liquid but remembers its original shape
3. Ravens remember relationships they had with others
4. Lungs of the planet reveal their true sensitivity to global warming
5. The effective collective: Grouping could ensure animals find their way in a changing environment
6. Study of human specimen collections in the US offers first look at their huge diversity
7. Pensoft Publishers integrate their journal platform with OpenAIRE
8. Small, portable sensors allow users to monitor exposure to pollution on their smart phones
9. Cloud forest trees drink water through their leaves
10. New technique to deliver stem cell therapy may help damaged eyes regain their sight
11. Delivered meals help seniors stay in their homes
Post Your Comments:
(Date:5/20/2016)... -- VoiceIt is excited to announce its new marketing ... working together, VoiceIt and VoicePass will offer an ... slightly different approaches to voice biometrics, collaboration between ... Both companies ... "This marketing and technology partnership allows VoiceIt ...
(Date:5/9/2016)... 2016 Elevay is currently known ... freedom for high net worth professionals seeking travel for ... connected world, there is still no substitute for a ... sealing your deal with a firm handshake. This is ... advantage of citizenship via investment programs like those offered ...
(Date:4/28/2016)... 2016 First quarter 2016:   ... with the first quarter of 2015 The gross margin ... (loss: 18.8) and the operating margin was 40% (-13) ... Cash flow from operations was SEK 249.9 M (21.2) , ... unchanged, SEK 7,000-8,500 M. The operating margin for 2016 ...
Breaking Biology News(10 mins):
(Date:6/27/2016)... (PRWEB) , ... June 27, 2016 , ... ... operations for Amgen, will join the faculty of the University of North ... adjunct professor of strategy and entrepreneurship at UNC Kenan-Flagler, with a focus on ...
(Date:6/24/2016)... on a range of subjects including policies, debt and investment ... Speaking at a lecture to the Canadian Economics ... the country,s inflation target, which is set by both the ... "In certain areas there needs to be frequent ... not sit down and address strategy together?" He ...
(Date:6/24/2016)... ... ... Researchers at the Universita Politecnica delle Marche in Ancona combed medical journal ... Their findings are the subject of a new article on the Surviving Mesothelioma website. ... the blood, lung fluid or tissue of mesothelioma patients that can help point doctors ...
(Date:6/23/2016)... June 23, 2016   Boston Biomedical , ... compounds designed to target cancer stemness pathways, announced ... granted Orphan Drug Designation from the U.S. Food ... gastric cancer, including gastroesophageal junction (GEJ) cancer. Napabucasin ... to inhibit cancer stemness pathways by targeting STAT3, ...
Breaking Biology Technology: