Computing With RNA

Scientists in California have created molecular computers that are able to self-assemble out of strips of RNA within living cells. Eventually, such computers could be programmed to manipulate biological functions within the cell, executing different tasks under different conditions. One application could be smart drug delivery systems, says Christina Smolke, who carried out the research with Maung Nyan Win and whose results are published in the latest issue of Science.

The use of biomolecules to perform computations was first demonstrated by the University of Southern California’s Leonard Adleman in 1994, and the approach was later developed by Ehud Shapiro of the Weizmann Institute of Science, in Rehovot, Israel. But according to Shapiro, “What this new work shows for the first time is the ability to detect the presence or absence of molecules within the cell.”

That opens up the possibility of computing devices that can respond to specific conditions within the cell, he says. For example, it may be possible to develop drug delivery systems that target cancer cells from within by sensing genes used to regulate cell growth and death. “You can program it to release the drug when the conditions are just right, at the right time and in the right place,” Shapiro says.

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