Researchers have turned living cells into computers, using DNA for information processing and storage.

A team at MIT in the US has developed what it calls ‘DOMINO’ (DNA-based Ordered Memory and Iteration Network Operator), which allows changes in one letter of DNA to trigger another change, and another, and another, causing a cascade. This approach means the cells can process, monitor, and store information about themselves and their environment.

DOMINO uses a gene editing technique similar to the CRISPR system that was reported to have been used by a Chinese scientist to create the world's first genetically-modified babies.

The researchers say it could be used to create sensors that sit in our bodies collecting and storing information for health monitoring, or in systems to measure and record contamination in rivers and waterways.

“We need better strategies to unravel how complex biology works, especially in diseases like cancer where multiple biological events can occur to transform normal cell into diseased ones,” says senior author Timothy Lu, an electrical engineer and computer scientist at MIT.

“With this method we are using DNA as a memory tape to permanently record biological events that are occur in disease. This technology can give us deeper insights into what signals go up and down over time to drive disease development.”

DOMINO technology builds on established genome-editing CRISPR tools, but instead of cutting the DNA at a specific location, DOMINO uses a base editing approach to overwrite DNA at particular locations.

“With DOMINO, it is possible to write DNA to change the information encoded into different positions, and then read out this information on the fly, like a read-write head in a computer hard drive” says first author Fahim Farzadfard, who developed the DOMINO concept.

“We can also combine and layer multiple DNA reading and writing events together to build various forms of logic, such as 'AND' and 'OR' operations, which can then be used to create more complex memory and computing operations in living cells.”

The full study is accessible here.