Controlling cells and proteins with new nanocomputing agents

Written by Francis Davies

Researchers are eyeballing the potential to develop a nanoscale programming language after controlling a protein within a cell using nanocomputing agent-based logic gates for the first time.

Researchers at Penn State (PA, USA) have implemented nanocomputing agents into a protein for the first time, allowing them to control the function involved in cell adhesion and movement. The finding could have implications for preventing cancer metastases.

A logic gate is a simple operator that takes multiple inputs and gives a single Boolean output, binary digits of 0 (false) and 1 (true). In this case, the researchers created a ‘two-input logic OR gate’, in which the output is true if either or both of the inputs are true, or 1.

The researchers inserted a modified gene into a HeLa cancer cell and observed the effects of both individual and combined inputs on the cell’s behavior. By rapidly activating the protein focal adhesion kinase (FAK), the researchers observed an increase in the cell’s adhesive capabilities, which in turn decreased its motility. This decrease in cell motility is significant as it impacts the initial stages of metastatic cancer development.

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By extension, if a single nanocomputing agent logic gate can affect cell behavior in this manner, there could be a clear route towards complex nanoscale computers. This could have significant implications for disease prevention and treatment.

The ability to control cell behavior provides a unique opportunity for researchers to study the workings of specific cells. Yashavantha Vishweshwaraiah, first author of the study, observed, “we also discovered some interesting features of the FAK protein, such as the changes it triggers in cells when it is activated.”

“Our logic gate is just the beginning of what you could call cellular computing,” senior author Nikolay Dokholyan said, “but it is a major milestone because it demonstrates the ability to embed conditional operations in a protein and control its function. It will allow us to gain a deeper understanding of human biology and disease and introduces possibilities for the development of precision therapeutics.”

Dokholyan also expressed a hope of eventually testing the nanocomputing agents in living organisms. Their paper, published in Nature Communications, suggests potential uses for this technology in the future, ranging from disease diagnostics and drug delivery to “rewiring of cellular signaling, and context-based sensing of metals, pH, and temperature”.