The Parallels Between Synthetic Biology and Personal Computing

Both synthetic biology and personal computing are informational sciences. They deal with the generation, storage, and transmission of information through the animate and the inanimate, respectively. At the conceptual level, the two are very similar. Surprisingly, the parallels do not end there. Just as personal computing has dramatically altered how we do things, synthetic biology is poised to revolutionize our world even further. The similarities include:

Conceptual parallels

The basic unit of information in computing is a bit, which exists in only two forms: 0 or 1. In synthetic biology, it is the four nucleotide bases in the DNA. Accounting for the four nucleotides as pairs of bits—00, 01, 10, and 11—the whole human DNA can be written in just 756 MB. Proteins and genes can easily be compared to transistors and diodes as the determinants of the state of a particular reaction or passage of current. DNA repair mechanisms are similar to the error protection measures in computing. Biological data is compressed using overlapping open reading frames (ORFs). Biochemical reactions are like logic gates that use binary operations to deduce the functioning of biochemical pathways.

Ribosomes, cells, and whole tissues are increasingly being seen as operating systems, computers, and networks, which many are now tinkering with in university labs and hacker spaces. Computer programmers have taken inspiration from biology, as is evident by the development of neural networks, evolutionary selection of possible solutions, and the addition of robustness into their systems. It is time that biologists learned a few methodologies from their fellow information scientists, and some have already embarked on that process. The highly ambitious goals include writing entirely original code and developing new computers that run on similar or advanced operating systems. And by this I mean engineering novel proteins and creating new life forms similar to the ones we know — and possibly some less familiar ones, too.

Similarities between a computer and a cell. Source: Andrianantoandro et al. (2006)
Similarities between a computer and a cell. Source: Andrianantoandro et al. (2006)

Historical parallels

Computers were initially viewed as calculating giants that only large corporations, the government, or the military possessed. They became personal only in the 1980s. The two companies responsible for the paradigm shift—Apple and Microsoft—were born not out of academia or industrial establishments, but in the garages of DIY enthusiasts. Biological research has long been, and mostly still is, confined to universities and multinational institutions. In what could be a historical shift in the field, DIY biologists have sprung up over the last decade and are bringing the very same element to biology that the DIY home computer builders brought to computing. Partly, this was made possible by the ever-dropping prices of DNA sequencing and synthesis and the development of low-cost hardware.

The key elements include standardization of parts, ease of compilation, open sourcing of information (read hacker ethics), citizen involvement, and democratization of technology. It was only after these were incorporated in the garages of Silicon Valley that the computer could be placed on the desks and later in the pockets of the people. In addition to the lack of these elements, the limitations with recombinant DNA technology are that the experiments take too long and that the results are too complex to easily interpret. Synthetic biology aims to tackle these challenges and its mission can be, in my humble view, best defined as bringing engineering back into genetic engineering.

Futuristic parallels

According to some estimates, the number of mobile phones will soon surpass the number of people in the world. Computers are everywhere, and so are people who understand a thing or two about them. Teens make apps at home and start companies out of them. Nothing has ever been this personal and intuitive. Is synthetic biology following suit? What does it have to offer?

Just as anyone can learn to program, soon designing synthetic life “will be commonplace.” Similar to the parallels synthetic biology has to personal computing, personal genome sequencing might lead to the engineering of systems to print customized therapeutic small molecules. But synthetic biology, specifically, has the potential to be even more revolutionary than personal computing, as it holds direct influence on the world’s largest industries, namely pharmaceuticals, energy, food, warfare, and manufacturing.

As an advertisement from personal computing pioneer Apple said,

“The people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do.”

This article of mine featured in the latest issue of BioCoder (click here to go to the Spring 2014 issue), a synthetic biology e-magazine. BioCoder is about a very old programming language that we’re just beginning to understand.


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