New Computer Language Enables Researchers to Program New Functions for Living Cells

Achievement date: 

A programming language that allows researchers to rapidly design complex, DNA-encoded circuits that give new functions to living cells has been developed and deployed by biological engineers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Boston University (BU), and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). Using this language, scientists can write a program for the function they want, such as detecting and responding to certain environmental conditions. The work resulting in this breakthrough was supported by the NSF-funded Synthetic Biology Engineering Research Center (Synberc), headquartered at the University of California (UC) Berkeley. 


Synthetic biology researchers have been working toward a future in which the design of biological circuits will work like the design of integrated circuits in electronics. Over the past 15 years, biologists and engineers have designed many genetic parts that can be combined to modify existing cell functions and add new ones. However, designing each circuit was difficult, time-consuming, and required specific expertise—problems now resolved with the new programming language. It is accessible and easy for researchers in many related disciplines to use, and it is fast. The team is now working on a variety of applications, such as bacteria that can be swallowed to aid in digestion of lactose, bacteria that can live on plant roots and produce insecticide if they sense the plant is under attack, and yeast that can be engineered to shut off when they are producing too many toxic byproducts.


Cells respond to their environment, making decisions, building structures, and coordinating tasks. Underlying these processes are computational operations performed by networks of regulatory proteins that integrate signals and control the timing of gene expression.

Electronic design automation (EDA) was developed to aid engineers in the design of semiconductor-based electronics. To accelerate genetic circuit design, the research team applied principles from EDA to enable increased circuit complexity and to simplify the incorporation of synthetic gene regulation into genetic engineering projects. The language is based on Verilog, which is commonly used to program computer chips. To create a version of the language that would work for cells, the researchers designed computing elements such as logic gates and sensors that can be encoded in a bacterial cell’s DNA. The software, called Cello®, is now available online.