Running DNA Like a Computer Could Help You Fight Viruses One Day

Dont take this the wrong way, but youre just data. Genes built you, from the tips of your toes to the crown of your head. In that sense, youre not unlike a computer: Code produces the output that is your body.

In fact, for the past two decades, scientists have usedactual DNA as if it were literal code, a process calledDNA computing, to do things like calculating square roots. Today, researchers report in the journal Nature Communications that theyve deployed DNA to detect antibodies—soldiers yourbody produces to fight viruses and such—by running a sequence of molecular instructions.Someday, the same kind of calculations could automatically release drugs in response to infections.

The key to making it all work is that DNA strands really like to stick to each other—in very specific ways. In a test tube, you mix a bunch of DNA molecules, says Maarten Merkx, a biochemist at Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands and a lead author on the new paper. By choosing the sequences right, they undergo a series of reactions. A single strand from one double-helical molecule of DNA attaches to astrand from a different DNA molecule, a process calledhybridization that creates a newDNA molecule, which in turn combines with yet more DNA in the mix. Think about what happens if you mix orange juice and champagne: You get something novel and quite frankly better.

Critically, certain combinations of certain DNA molecules happen only in the presence of an antibody. If you add together the right molecules, you can get a signal out of the system when that particular hybridization happens. That’s kind of like what happens in a computer cranking code; hybridization is the “yes” or the 1 and a lack of hybridization is a “no” or the zero. In this case, the scientists added ingredients so that the DNA would fluoresce if the hybridizations happened just right—that’s the output.

Sure, you can test blood for antibodies. That’s the old fashioned way. The idea here is to one day use DNA computing as a persistent monitor for antibodies. You could use that setup to create DNA nanocapsules carryingdrugs. The DNA that our DNA computer produces can be used to unlock this capsule, says Merkx. His team was looking specifically at viruses like influenza and HIV, so maybe the package could deliver more virus-killing antibodies.

The study also represents a leap in how DNA computing works in general. It certainly offers another tool in the toolbox of those who want to design complex computing strategies, says Philip Santangelo, a bioengineer at Georgia Tech who wasnt involved in the research. You could use proteins and enzymes to build computing architectures that use many biomolecules, not just DNA.” More complexity means more precision and sophistication in the kinds of programs scientists can run.

So sure, you may just be data. But in the right hands, that data could one day do wonders for medicine.

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