Biology photo
via University of Nottingham

At the University of Nottingham, a team of researchers is spearheading an ambitious project that could pull synthetic biology out of its niche and into the mainstream. With help from researchers elsewhere in the U.K., the U.S., Israel, and Spain, the team is trying to create a “reprogrammable cell” that can act as the in vivo cell equivalent to a computer’s operating system. In other words, they are trying to create cellular software that would let researchers alter living cells without changing their hardware.

The project, if successful, would mark a huge leap forward for synthetic biology as a field. Scientists could easily and quickly program cells to perform all kinds of tasks as well as create wholly new forms of life not found in nature customized for various uses. That’s another way of saying the “operating system” would allow for rapid prototyping of life forms, saving the time and energy currently consumed by returning to the drawing board each time researchers need a cell with a new function.

The scientists are starting by trying to make E. coli bacteria more programmable. If they are successful, they say they could be easily reprogramming cells and compiling those programs in just five years time, generating a database of easy-to-implement cellular programs that would allow the entire field of synthetic biology to move exponentially faster toward discoveries rather than inch forward by trial and error as it does currently.

Those discoveries could be huge. Synthetic biology as a discipline sometimes catches flak for “playing god”–it does seek to create entirely new forms of life, after all–but it has the potential to open all kinds of doors in everything from pharmaceuticals to clean energy research. Customized living cells could be tailored to clean up environmental disasters, scrub unwanted carbon from the air, pull pollutants from drinking water, attack pathogens inside the human body, protect food sources from agricultural pests–the list is potentially endless. An operating system for cells would be a vital enabling technology.