Written for “Snapshots of the future” in the 1500th issue of Felix, Imperial College London’s student newspaper.
New programming languages could lead to advances in synthetic biology.
There’s a lot of speculation about where the future of computing lies. Quantum computers and qubits promise to open up computational problems that are infeasable using bits alone; nanotech materials such as graphene look set to change the fundamentals of computer hardware, replacing silicon as the basis for chip design; and electrons might give way to photons as we strive for higher speeds and bandwidth via optical processors. But perhaps strangest of all is the future envisioned by the fledgling field of computational biology, which aims to make computational devices out of living cells.
Studying how cells process information could help with understanding life itself. Last year, the genome entrepreneur, Craig Venter, famously made the first synthetic cell by copying the genetic code of one species of bacteria and inserting it into another – prompting many questions quite literally about the meaning of life. However, swapping around an existing DNA sequence – or biological program – only goes so far. What if we were to specify arbitrary functionality for cells – or, in other words, write our own biological programs?
That’s just what ex-Imperial student Andrew Phillips is working on. Phillips, who now heads the Biological Computation group at Microsoft Research Cambridge, was recently named one of the world’s top innovators under the age of 35 by Technology Review for his research into programming biology. Typically, synthetic biology involves low-level tinkering and the manipulation of DNA strands directly. By developing a programming language that compiles to DNA sequences instead of machine code, Phillips allows cell behaviour to be specified at a high level of abstraction, making it easier to design biological programs from scratch.
According to Phillips, through collaboration with experts in programming languages, biologists, neuroscientists, and even ecologists, his group at Microsoft Research has “the scope to research and develop what might become the key technologies of the next decade or the decade after that. It’s possible that programming biology may one day surpass the world of programming silicon”.