Semantron 23 Summer 2023

Hacking the cell: are synthetic biological circuits the future of medicine?

Oscar Pelly

It significant understatement to say that electronic circuitry and computation are important aspects of modern life. 90% of the planet are connected to electricity, and as a result use technologies that rely on circuitry, be they as simple as the lightbulb, or as complex as the gargantuan collection of logical operations that is a personal computer. Since the completion of the ‘ Difference Engine ’ – the first automatic mechanical calculator, capable of computing polynomial functions – by Charles Babbage in 1822, the electronics industry has developed into a key part of the modern world, the consumer electronics industry alone being worth over $1 trillion. 1 Given the importance would be a rather

of circuitry in the development of the human species, it is unsurprising that comparisons have been made between the logical processes of electronics, and the behaviours of biological entities. Such a concept is known as biological computation, but manipulation of biological matter at the molecular level – at least in the same way we manipulate a computer – has been extremely difficult due to the immeasurably complex system of feedback loops and molecular cascades that form a web of gene regulatory networks (GRNs), and protein-protein interaction networks (PPINs) within cells. Recent developments in synthetic biology combined with existing genetic-engineering technology, however, have enabled scientists to apply computational logic directly to gene expression and protein-protein interaction. This nascent but extremely promising technology, ‘ hacking ’ real biological cells, presents near-limitless possibilities, including many applications in medicine. This essay will investigate the biomedical potential this new technology has, and discuss whether or not synthetic biological circuits (SBCs) are truly the future of medicine. Cellular processes rely upon being extremely efficient, performing the necessary action whilst conserving the maximum amount of energy possible. Unsurprisingly, the regulatory framework that controls cellular processes and ensures nothing energetically unnecessary occurs is highly complex, forming a network of biochemical logic fed constantly with molecular feedback and crosstalk. The Figure 1 A schematic of the E.coli lac operon


Made with FlippingBook - Online catalogs