Tuesday, November 8, 2011

'Cell computer' will be used in attempt to make life

A research project by the University of Nottingham focuses on the ability to reprogram cells on the fly. For this, an equivalent of a computer's operating system needs to be developed, to give the right cellular cues to alter behaviour. The reprogramming system would be able to modify multiple cells at the same time, in order to build up artificial organs, or even new forms of life. Computer models that accurately predict cellular behaviour will be used to develop biological commands to instruct cellular differentiation, that can hopefully be used to create complex tissues, much like what is happening in our body during development.

As a first step, scientists hope to make the bacterial strain E. coli more easily reprogrammable. The development of cell-based organs, or even artificial forms of life will follow once the initial phase is successful. Sadly, this will take about five years, the scientists predict. E. coli bacteria, that inhabit our gut, are often used for reprogramming, mostly by genetic modification. We use them produce chemicals we find useful, especially drugs.

During natural development, our body creates many cell types in parallel under the influence of many chemical messengers. We can not achieve this form of complexity with just using a set of cells that are being fed with a set of hormones, cytokines or other messengers. Instruction based on computerized prediction of cellular behaviour should enable us to guide cells in the same way our intrinsic body plan allows us to creat different organs, in order to build up a whole organism. By using computer models, a set of commands will be developed that should induce behavioural changes.

Currently, stem cells are commonly used for reprogramming. That is because they have the capability to differentiate in to almost all cell types, rendering scientists able to create cells they want, as long as they provide the right cues. Many chemical factors and genes are known that can play a role in cellular differentiation, but the complex formation of tissues and organs, let alone life, is much harder. This requires sequential steps in differentiation under influence of many chemical messengers at the same time. In the lab, we only recently managed to turn one cell type in to an other, which is mostly performed by first transforming the cell back to a stem cell.

A computer model that predicts cellular behaviour, and is able to give commands that lets cells seamlessly modify their behaviour will be developed to overcome the current reprogramming limitations with stem cells. The scientists do not state how they expect to achieve their goal. The first step will be developing computer models that predict cellular behaviour, but the factors that will be used to actually reprogram the cells were not given.

Recent developments in stem cell technology should make it easier for the researchers to obtain their starting material. A study revealed a technique that allows for the creation of human embryonic stem cells in the lab, instead of deriving them from embryo donors. In addition, culturing stem cells can be up to a 100 times more efficient with a new technique. 

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