Cells are the building blocks of life. If we could program living cells as effectively as we program digital computers we could make breakthroughs in medical treatment, sustainable agriculture and clean energy, while also better understanding of how living systems compute. In spite of this potential there are still many challenges to overcome. Programming cells is highly complex and error-prone, and we are at a point where powerful computer software is needed to accelerate further progress. This talk presents ongoing work to develop computer software for programming cells at three levels: molecular circuits, genetic devices and cell colonies. We present software for programming molecular circuits made of DNA, and for characterising genetic parts that can be combined into devices for programming cell function. The computational core of both tools was developed entirely in F#, which facilitated the transition from formal semantics to executable code. Finally, we present software for simulating cell biofilms using 3D biophysical methods, which can be used to predict the effect of cell shape on colony morphology. Just as software for programming digital computers heralded a new era of technology, software for programming cells could enable new industries in biotechnology.
Andrew Phillips is head of the Bio Computation Group at Microsoft Research in Cambridge.
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