Scientists building 'computer operating system' for synthetic biology

It's a truism that the pace of progress is easier to predict in information technology than in biology. Why? Living organisms are complex and not easily manipulated, for starters. But now an international group of computer scientists and experts from other fields are embarking on a project to create a computer operating system of sorts for cells, potentially opening the door to more efficient creation of novel organisms that can do things that natural creatures can't.

In the field of synthetic biology, for example, there's an iterative process to develop a man-made organism. Researchers often have to start from scratch each time they build an organism, and that can require huge amounts of time and money. Think about having to create a new version of Windows every time you wanted to load software onto your computer. To hear the group at the University of Nottingham, that hypothetical scenario doesn't seem far off from the challenges of synthetic biology.

"We are looking at creating a cell's equivalent to a computer operating system in such a way that a given group of cells could be seamlessly re-programmed to perform any function without needing to modifying its hardware," Professor Natalio Krasnogor of the University of Nottingham's School of Computer Science said in a statement. "We are talking about a highly ambitious goal leading to a fundamental breakthrough that will, ultimately, allow us to rapidly prototype, implement and deploy living entities that are completely new and do not appear in nature, adapting them so they perform new useful functions."

The effort, which is being called "Towards a Biological Cell Operating System" (AUdACiOus), has also attracted experts from MIT, Arizona State University, Michigan State University, University of California, Santa Barbara, UC San Francisco, as well as researchers in Israel and Spain. The group believes that the project's tech, which will include models to predict the behavior of cells, could find use in medicine and cleaning the environment. No big surprises there given the diversity of the synthetic biology arena today.

- here's the University of Nottingham's story

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