Largest biochemical circuit built out of small synthetic DNA molecules

June 2, 2011 by Marcus Woo
A wiring diagram specifying a system of 74 DNA molecules that constitute the largest synthetic circuit of its type ever made. The circuit computes the square root of a number up to 15 and rounds down to the nearest integer (the discrete square root of a four-bit integer). Credit: Caltech/Lulu Qian

In many ways, life is like a computer. An organism's genome is the software that tells the cellular and molecular machinery—the hardware—what to do. But instead of electronic circuitry, life relies on biochemical circuitry—complex networks of reactions and pathways that enable organisms to function. Now, researchers at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) have built the most complex biochemical circuit ever created from scratch, made with DNA-based devices in a test tube that are analogous to the electronic transistors on a computer chip.

Engineering these allows researchers to explore the principles of information processing in biological systems, and to design biochemical pathways with decision-making capabilities. Such circuits would give biochemists unprecedented control in designing chemical reactions for applications in biological and chemical engineering and industries. For example, in the future a synthetic biochemical circuit could be introduced into a clinical blood sample, detect the levels of a variety of molecules in the sample, and integrate that information into a diagnosis of the pathology.

"We're trying to borrow the ideas that have had huge success in the electronic world, such as abstract representations of computing operations, programming languages, and compilers, and apply them to the biomolecular world," says Lulu Qian, a senior postdoctoral scholar in bioengineering at Caltech and lead author on a paper published in the June 3 issue of the journal Science.

Along with Erik Winfree, Caltech professor of computer science, computation and neural systems, and bioengineering, Qian used a new kind of DNA-based component to build the largest artificial biochemical circuit ever made. Previous lab-made biochemical circuits were limited because they worked less reliably and predictably when scaled to larger sizes, Qian explains. The likely reason behind this limitation is that such circuits need various molecular structures to implement different functions, making large systems more complicated and difficult to debug. The researchers' new approach, however, involves components that are simple, standardized, reliable, and scalable, meaning that even bigger and more complex circuits can be made and still work reliably.

"You can imagine that in the computer industry, you want to make better and better computers," Qian says. "This is our effort to do the same. We want to make better and better biochemical circuits that can do more sophisticated tasks, driving molecular devices to act on their environment."

To build their circuits, the researchers used pieces of DNA to make so-called logic gates—devices that produce on-off output signals in response to on-off input signals. Logic gates are the building blocks of the digital logic circuits that allow a computer to perform the right actions at the right time. In a conventional computer, logic gates are made with electronic transistors, which are wired together to form circuits on a silicon chip. Biochemical circuits, however, consist of molecules floating in a test tube of salt water. Instead of depending on electrons flowing in and out of transistors, DNA-based logic gates receive and produce molecules as signals. The molecular signals travel from one specific gate to another, connecting the circuit as if they were wires.

Winfree and his colleagues first built such a biochemical circuit in 2006. In this work, DNA signal molecules connected several DNA logic gates to each other, forming what's called a multilayered circuit. But this earlier circuit consisted of only 12 different DNA molecules, and the circuit slowed down by a few orders of magnitude when expanded from a single logic gate to a five-layered circuit. In their new design, Qian and Winfree have engineered logic gates that are simpler and more reliable, allowing them to make circuits at least five times larger.

Their new logic gates are made from pieces of either short, single-stranded DNA or partially double-stranded DNA in which single strands stick out like tails from the DNA's double helix. The single-stranded DNA molecules act as input and output signals that interact with the partially double-stranded ones.

"The molecules are just floating around in solution, bumping into each other from time to time," Winfree explains. "Occasionally, an incoming strand with the right DNA sequence will zip itself up to one strand while simultaneously unzipping another, releasing it into solution and allowing it to react with yet another strand." Because the researchers can encode whatever DNA sequence they want, they have full control over this process. "You have this programmable interaction," he says.

Qian and Winfree made several circuits with their approach, but the largest—containing 74 different DNA molecules—can compute the square root of any number up to 15 (technically speaking, any four-bit binary number) and round down the answer to the nearest integer. The researchers then monitor the concentrations of output molecules during the calculations to determine the answer. The calculation takes about 10 hours, so it won't replace your laptop anytime soon. But the purpose of these circuits isn't to compete with electronics; it's to give scientists logical control over biochemical processes.

Their circuits have several novel features, Qian says. Because reactions are never perfect—the molecules don't always bind properly, for instance—there's inherent noise in the system. This means the molecular signals are never entirely on or off, as would be the case for ideal binary logic. But the new logic gates are able to handle this noise by suppressing and amplifying signals—for example, boosting a signal that's at 80 percent, or inhibiting one that's at 10 percent, resulting in signals that are either close to 100 percent present or nonexistent.

All the logic gates have identical structures with different sequences. As a result, they can be standardized, so that the same types of components can be wired together to make any circuit you want. What's more, Qian says, you don't have to know anything about the behind the circuit to make one. If you want a circuit that, say, automatically diagnoses a disease, you just submit an abstract representation of the logic functions in your design to a compiler that the researchers provide online, which will then translate the design into the DNA components needed to build the circuit. In the future, an outside manufacturer can then make those parts and give you the circuit, ready to go.

The circuit components are also tunable. By adjusting the concentrations of the types of DNA, the researchers can change the functions of the logic gates. The circuits are versatile, featuring plug-and-play components that can be easily reconfigured to rewire the circuit. The simplicity of the also allows for more efficient techniques that synthesize them in parallel.

"Like Moore's Law for silicon electronics, which says that computers are growing exponentially smaller and more powerful every year, molecular systems developed with nanotechnology have been doubling in size roughly every three years," Winfree says. Qian adds, "The dream is that synthetic biochemical circuits will one day achieve complexities comparable to life itself."

Explore further: Team develops 'logic gates' to program bacteria as computers

More information: Science paper: "Scaling up digital circuit computation with DNA strand displacement cascades"

Related Stories

'Chaogates' hold promise for the semiconductor industry

November 16, 2010

In a move that holds great significance for the semiconductor industry, a team of researchers has created an alternative to conventional logic gates, demonstrated them in silicon, and dubbed them "chaogates." The researchers ...

The logic of life

April 20, 2006

Even though the entire human genome has now been 'read' - the chemical composition of our DNA has been more or less mapped out, gene by gene - we still have a rather poor grasp of how living cells actually work. That's because ...

Cell-inspired electronics

February 25, 2010

( -- A single cell in the human body is approximately 10,000 times more energy-efficient than any nanoscale digital transistor, the fundamental building block of electronic chips. In one second, a cell performs ...

Recommended for you

Multicolor MRIs could aid disease detection

August 16, 2017

Researchers at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine have developed a method that could make magnetic resonance imaging—MRI—multicolor. Current MRI techniques rely on a single contrast agent injected into ...

Turning pollen into a low-cost fertilizer

August 16, 2017

As the world population continues to balloon, agricultural experts puzzle over how farms will produce enough food to keep up with demand. One tactic involves boosting crop yields. Toward that end, scientists have developed ...

Nanotechnology gives green energy a green color

August 15, 2017

Solar panels have tremendous potential to provide affordable renewable energy, but many people see traditional black and blue panels as an eyesore. Architects, homeowners and city planners may be more open to the technology ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

3 / 5 (6) Jun 02, 2011
Androids will be making babies, mark my words.
not rated yet Jun 03, 2011
Is it eatable? Injectable?
1 / 5 (1) Jun 03, 2011
I wonder if you can give a complete computation to a single molecule? Like ADD or SUB? or are there algorithms involved like regular binary CPU's?

It would be amazing to work on this kind of research.
5 / 5 (1) Jun 03, 2011
Singularity, here we come! I've believed Ray Kurzweil was overly optimistic with his 2045 target, but these last few years are making me wonder if he didn't overshoot the mark.

I also believe that among generations living on Earth today, the older of us (and our ancestors, of course) might someday in the future be known collectively as 'The Ancients', being the last generations without biologic or nanotech modification. Am I wrong about that?
not rated yet Jun 07, 2011
I've believed Ray Kurzweil was overly optimistic with his 2045 target, but these last few years are making me wonder if he didn't overshoot the mark.

I also believe that among generations living on Earth today, the older of us (and our ancestors, of course) might someday in the future be known collectively as 'The Ancients', being the last generations without biologic or nanotech modification.

No one can predict black swan events, incidentally these are what can shape the future the most. Kurzweil's reasoning is rational but the precise dates are subject to great uncertainty. You must first pass the event horizon before you can reach the singularity.

If our generations do turn out to be the very first of those saved by life extension and enhancement; it falls on us to shoulder the enormous responsibility of enabling the transition successfully and safely. Failure means extinction, but success would resonate throughout infinity. What a daunting privilege.

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.