Want CNET to notify you of price drops and the latest stories?

Engineers write programming language to help build synthetic DNA

Chemists could soon turn to a standardized set of instructions on how to program molecular interaction in a test tube or cell.

Elizabeth Armstrong Moore
Elizabeth Armstrong Moore is based in Portland, Oregon, and has written for Wired, The Christian Science Monitor, and public radio. Her semi-obscure hobbies include climbing, billiards, board games that take up a lot of space, and piano.
Elizabeth Armstrong Moore
2 min read
An artist's rendering of a 'chemical computer' executing a molecular program. Yan Liang/L2XY2.com

Chemical reaction networks make up an old language of equations that detail how chemicals behave together. Now engineers at the University of Washington are taking this language into the 21st century with a computer program for chemistry that can help direct the movement of synthetic molecules.

This standardized set of instructions on how to "program" how DNA molecules interact in a test tube or cell could pave the way for smart drug delivery systems and disease detectors at the cellular level, the researchers report this week in the journal Nature Nanotechnology.

"We start from an abstract, mathematical description of a chemical system, and then use DNA to build the molecules that realize the desired dynamics," author Georg Seelig, a UW assistant professor of electrical engineering and of computer science and engineering, said in a school news release. "The vision is that eventually you can use this technology to build general-purpose tools."

Seelig calls his team's approach a "programming language" because, he says, much like how programming languages tell computers what to do, "we can tell chemistry what to do."

The language is increasingly important as scientists develop ways to design synthetic systems that mimic biological ones to help, say, support a body's natural functions.

And while the language isn't yet ready for prime time, it could ultimately be used to make molecules that self-assemble within cells to become smart sensors, programmed to carry out such duties as tracking vitals or detecting abnormalities.

The researchers received $2 million in funding from the National Science Foundation as part of a larger initiative to advance molecular programming.