The Next Revolution Of Programming: Programming Biological Cells

We’re heading into the future at breakneck speed. We’ve shifted from programming software to now programming living cells. While the latter part of the last century bore the computer & IT revolution, i.e. to program electrons on silicon, which opened up a dynamic range of possibilities, we’re now headed into a future which bears the living software revolution.

Living software as it’s called, would transform the entirety of medicine, agriculture and energy, and IT pales in comparison to each of those sectors.

Imagine a future of programmable plants that fix nitrogen more effectively or resist emerging fungal pathogens or even programming crops to be perennial rather than annual so you could double your crop yields each year. Living software enables such breakthroughs in agriculture which would transform the industry.

On a human biological level, imagine programmable immunity, designing and harnessing molecular devices that guide your immune system to detect, eradicate or even prevent disease. This would transform medicine and how we’ll keep our growing and ageing population healthy.

“We already have many of the tools that will make living software a reality. We can precisely edit genes with CRISPR. We can rewrite the genetic code one base at a time. We can even build functioning synthetic circuits out of DNA.”, says computational biologist Sara-Jane Dunn.

“But figuring out how and when to wield these tools is still a process of trial and error. It needs deep expertise, years of specialization. And experimental protocols are difficult to discover and all too often, difficult to reproduce. So programming biology is not yet as simple as programming your computer. ”

“My passion for this idea(of programming cells) led me to a career in research at the interface of maths, computer science and biology. And in my work, I focus on the concept of biology as computation. And that means asking what do cells compute, and how can we uncover these biological programs?”

In her TED talk, Sara-Jane Dunn explains her work in computational biology and outlines the future of living software and how we’ve entered into the realm of a new revolution of understanding and programming living cells. This will, in turn, drive innovation and further breakthroughs within the field.

“But the ultimate prize, the ultimate destination on this journey, would be breakthrough applications and breakthrough industries in areas from agriculture and medicine to energy and materials and even computing itself.”, she says.

“So we are at the beginning of a technological revolution. Understanding this ancient type of biological computation is the critical first step. And if we can realize this, we would enter in the era of an operating system that runs living software.”


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