October 4, 2012 - If you were a bacterium, the virus M13 might seem innocuous enough. It insinuates more than it invades, setting up shop like a freeloading houseguest, not a killer. Once inside it makes itself at home, eating your food, texting indiscriminately. Recently, however, bioengineers
at Stanford University
have given M13 a bit of a makeover.
The researchers, Monica Ortiz, a doctoral candidate in bioengineering, and Drew Endy, PhD, an assistant professor of bioengineering, have parasitized the parasite and harnessed M13's key attributes -- its non-lethality and its ability to package and broadcast arbitrary DNA strands -- to create what might be termed the biological Internet, or "Bi-Fi." Their findings were published online Sept. 7 in the Journal of Biological Engineering.
Using the virus, Ortiz and Endy have created a biological mechanism to send genetic messages from cell to cell. The system greatly increases the complexity and amount of data that can be communicated between cells and could lead to greater control of biological functions within cell communities. The advance could prove a boon to bioengineers looking to create complex, multicellular communities that work in concert to accomplish important biological functions.
"The ability to communicate 'arbitrary' messages is a fundamental leap -- from just a signal-and-response relationship to a true language of interaction," said Radhika Nagpal, professor of computer science at the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University, who was not involved in the research. "Orchestrating the cooperation of cells to form artificial tissues, or even artificial organisms is just one possibility. This opens a door to new biological systems and solving problems that have no direct analog in nature."
Ortiz added: "The biological Internet is in its very earliest stages. When the information Internet was first introduced in the 1970s, it would have been hard to imagine the myriad uses it sees today, so there's no telling all the places this new work might lead."