Hacking Cells: Information Processing In Living Systems

The promise of the emerging field of synthetic biology is that it will provide genetically engineered bacteria and other organisms that can produce useful chemicals or biological molecules in abundance — making renewable biofuels or therapeutic antibodies, for instance.  A central goal of synthetic biology is to design sophisticated biological circuits that can perform complicated “computing-like” behaviors.

Pankaj Mehta and colleagues at the Boston University Center for Synthetic Biology are approaching this goal by laying bare the energetic constraints that limit a cell’s ability to perform certain information processing tasks. They look at the complex biochemical networks through which cells sense what’s around them, adapt to changes their environments and process information. By comparing the ability of cells to process information and perform computations to the processing ability of modern computers they are finding new theoretical insights that will help improve the design of synthetic circuits in engineered cells.

“The ability of cells to perform statistical inferences about their environments is fundamentally limited to how much energy they consume” Mehta said. “To our knowledge, this is first connection between statistics and thermodynamics in any setting.”




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