A new OS for synthetic biology

Wyss Institute scientists have embedded effective synthetic gene networks in pocket-sized slips of paper. An array of RNA-activated sensors uses visible color changing proteins to indicate presence of a targeted RNA, capable of identifying pathogens such as antibiotic-resistant bacteria and strain-specific Ebola virus. Credit: Harvard’s Wyss Institute

Researchers at the Wyss Institute for Biologically inspired Engineering have found a way to create test kits based on simple paper to detect molecules and identify pathogens quickly, at very low cost and in any place.

James Collins, one of the researchers, summarises their result with these words:

“What we have been able to do is to create an in vitro, sterile, abiotic operating system upon which we can rationally design synthetic, biological mechanisms to carry out specific functions. In the last fifteen years, there have been exciting advances in synthetic biology, but until now, researchers have been limited in their progress due to the complexity of biological systems and the challenges faced when trying to re-purpose them. Synthetic biology has been confined to the laboratory, operating within living cells or in liquid-solution test tubes.” 

Genes are the instruction code in a cell and the ensemble of the cell materials and structures can be seen as a liquid operating system. Researchers have been able to use artificial genes (most of the time extracted from a cell from another specie) to reprogram the working of the cell, e.g. to make it produce a certain protein.

What the researchers at Wyss have been able to do is to create an ambient outside of a cell for genes to work. In practice they have been able to transfer the genetic machinery of a cell planting it inside the finer matrix of paper.

The researchers have tested their idea by creating several testing kits, including one to detect various strains of the Ebola virus. In practice the paper lab can be programmed to detect specific complex molecules, such as a virus.

So far the sensitivity is low, which means that there should be a significant number of molecules for the test to work. Next steps is to increase the sensitivity so that even a few molecules would be sufficient for detection.

Author - Roberto Saracco

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