Engineers build first-ever multi-input 'plug-and-play' synthetic RNA device

October 17, 2008

Engineers from the California Institute of Technology have created a "plug-and-play" synthetic RNA device--a sort of eminently customizable biological computer--that is capable of taking in and responding to more than one biological or environmental signal at a time.

In the future, such devices could have a multitude of potential medical applications, including being used as sensors to sniff out tumor cells or determine when to turn modified genes on or off during cancer therapy.

A synthetic RNA device is a biological device that uses engineered modular components made of RNA nucleotides to perform a specific function--for instance, to detect and respond to biochemical signals inside a cell or in its immediate environment.

Created by Caltech's Christina Smolke, assistant professor of chemical engineering, and Maung Nyan Win, postdoctoral scholar in chemical engineering, the device is made up of modules comprising the RNA-based biological equivalents of engineering's sensors, actuators, and information transmitters. These individual components can be combined in a variety of different ways to create a device that can both detect and respond to what could conceivably be an almost infinite number of environmental and cellular signals.

This modular device processes these inputs in a manner almost identical to the logic gates used in computing; it can perform AND, NOR, NAND, and OR computations, and can perform signal filtering and signal gain operations. Smolke and Win's creation is the first RNA device that can handle more than one incoming piece of biological information. "There's been a lot of work done in single-input devices," notes Smolke. "But this is the first demonstration that a multi-input RNA device is possible."

Their work was published in the October 17 issue of the journal Science.

The modular--or plug-and-play--nature of the device's design also means that it can be easily modified to suit almost any need. "Scientists won't have to redesign their system every time they want the RNA device to take on a new function," Smolke explains. "This modular framework allows you to quickly put a device together, then just as easily swap out the components for other ones and get a completely different kind of computation. We could generate huge libraries of well-defined sensors and assemble many different tailored devices from such component libraries."

Although the work in the Science paper was done in yeast cells, Smolke says they have already shown that they can translate to mammalian cells as well. This makes it possible to consider using these devices in a wide variety of medical applications.

For instance, ongoing work in Smolke's laboratory is looking at the packaging of these RNA devices--configured with the appropriate sensor modules--in human T cells. The synthetic device would literally be placed within the cell to detect certain signals--say, one or more particular biochemical markers that are given off by tumor cells. If those biomarkers were present, the RNA device would signal the T cell to spring into action against the putative tumor cell.

Similarly, an RNA device could be bundled alongside a modified gene as part of a targeted gene therapy package. One of the problems gene therapy faces today is its lack of specificity--it's hard to make sure a modified gene meant to fix a problem in the liver reaches or is inserted in only liver cells. But an RNA device, Smolke says, could be customized to detect the unique biomarkers of a liver cell--or, better yet, of a diseased liver cell--and only then give the modified gene the go-ahead to do its stuff.

Source: California Institute of Technology

Explore further: Sequencing DNA in the palm of your hand

Related Stories

Sequencing DNA in the palm of your hand

September 30, 2015

Much like the miniature, goggle-wearing yellow organisms of the big screen that live to serve, a tiny new device called the MinION, developed by Oxford Nanopore Technologies, promises to help scientists sequence DNA in space. ...

DNA-based nanodevices for molecular medicine

September 24, 2015

Researchers from Aalto University have published an article in the recent Trends in Biotechnology journal. The article discusses how DNA molecules can be assembled into tailored and complex nanostructures, and further, how ...

Student tackles labeling RNA without genetic modification

September 21, 2015

Overcoming limitations of super-resolution microscopy to optimize imaging of RNA in living cells is a key motivation for physics graduate student Takuma Inoue, who works in the lab of MIT assistant professor of physics Ibrahim ...

New tool for investigating RNA gone awry

July 20, 2015

RNA is a fundamental ingredient in all known forms of lifeā€”so when RNA goes awry, a lot can go wrong. RNA misregulation plays a critical role in the development of many disorders, such as mental disability, autism and cancer.

Genetic switch detects TNT

July 7, 2015

Cleaning-up post-war explosive chemicals could get cheaper and easier, using a new genetic 'switch' device, being developed by scientists at the University of Exeter to detect damaging contaminants, such as TNT.

Recommended for you

Horn of Africa drying ever faster as climate warms

October 9, 2015

The Horn of Africa has become increasingly arid in sync with the global and regional warming of the last century and at a rate unprecedented in the last 2,000 years, according to new research led by a University of Arizona ...

Scientists paint quantum electronics with beams of light

October 9, 2015

A team of scientists from the University of Chicago and the Pennsylvania State University have accidentally discovered a new way of using light to draw and erase quantum-mechanical circuits in a unique class of materials ...

What are white holes?

October 9, 2015

Black holes are created when stars die catastrophically in a supernova. So what in the universe is a white hole?

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

not rated yet Oct 18, 2008
Now , THAT is what i call advance.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.