Cells as living calculators


Using analog computation circuits, MIT engineers design cells that can compute logarithms, divide and take square roots.

MIT engineers have transformed bacterial cells into living calculators that can compute logarithms, divide, and take square roots, using three or fewer genetic parts.

Inspired by how analog electronic circuits function, the researchers created synthetic computation circuits by combining existing genetic “parts,” or engineered genes, in novel ways.

The circuits perform those calculations in an analog fashion by exploiting natural biochemical functions that are already present in the cell rather than by reinventing them with digital logic, thus making them more efficient than the digital circuits pursued by most synthetic biologists, according to Rahul Sarpeshkar and Timothy Lu, the two senior authors on the paper, describing the circuits in the May 15 online edition of Nature.

“In analog you compute on a continuous set of numbers, which means it’s not just black and white, it’s gray as well,” says Sarpeshkar, an associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science and the head of the Analog Circuits and Biological Systems group at MIT

Analog computation would be particularly useful for designing cellular sensors for pathogens or other molecules, the researchers say. Analog sensing could also be combined with digital circuits to create cells that can take a specific action triggered by a threshold concentration of certain molecules.

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