Researchers at Stanford University have engineered a biological messenger that connects cells to each other in much the same way that Wi-Fi transmitters connect personal computers. Scientists have modified a harmless virus, called M13, enabling it to package and distribute large amounts of cellular data. Just as computers utilize WiFi to send and receive information, with the help of M13, cells can now do the same thing.
According to the authors of the study, cells have long been known to communicate by sending chemical messengers back and forth. However, in previously observed cases, the genetic message carried itself from one cell to the next. In effect, the message and the messenger were the same. The unique property of M13 is that it is a messenger capable of transmitting any message. M13 functions by identifying specific stands of DNA, wrapping them up in proteins, and sending them out of the host cell to “infect” other cells. Not only is M13 capable of relaying any message, it can carry much more information than is typically passed between cells.
“The largest DNA strand M13 is known to have packaged includes more than 40,000 base pairs….Most genetic messages of interest in bioengineering range from several hundred to many thousand base pairs.”
The discovery of transmitters like M13 foreshadow a paradigm shift in biological sciences. By introducing new instructions into an organism or a colony of cells, scientists can program new behaviors and cellular responses. Regeneration of tissue, resistance to disease, or even the creation of novel organisms are just some of the implications of this research.
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