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Research shows live cells can perform complex computations

A team of researchers at MIT has developed a technique to integrate both analogue and digital computation in living cells, allowing them to form gene circuits capable of carrying out complex processing operations.

Computations of living cells can be analogue or digital, with respective examples including the way eyes adjust to gradual changes in light, and a cell’s initiation of its own death, according to MIT news. Synthetic circuits have tended to focus on either analogue or digital processing however, which limits their range of applications.

Therefore, MIT associate professor Timothy Lu and his research team have created a mixed signal device that uses a threshold module with a sensor that can detect the analogue levels of a particular chemical. The module in turn controls the expression of the second component, a recombinase gene, which can then switch on or off a segment of DNA by inverting it, thereby converting it into a digital output, according to the researchers.

The team at MIT intend to use the device for medical research. However, other research groups are also interested in using the device for environmental applications such as engineering cells that detect concentrations of water pollutants.

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