IT for Synthetic
Biology and DNA
Somewhere between the studies of information technology
and organic chemistry, researchers are trying to make tiny
robots out of DNA molecules.
By Masami Hagiya, Fumiaki Tanaka, and Ibuki Kawamata
Information technology (IT), with computer science at its core, is essentially an engineering discipline for making computers. However, its horizons are expanding from traditional computers to various kinds of machines for more general use, such as mobile phones and PDAs—all kinds of devices with embedded computers for information processing and
communication. Robots are very similar. In fact, IT has a close relationship with robotics, and
the phrase “information and robot technology” reflects efforts to merge IT with robotics.
One goal of robotics is to make autonomous systems that can operate in
the real world without specific orders
from human beings. Robots that clean
floors while wandering from room to
room have made the first step toward
this goal. They are not given any definite orders, but they clean rooms operating on their own judgment.
In general, robots are made of sensors, computers, and actuators. Sensors
are devices that accept input from the
outside environment, including physical input such as temperature, light,
electromagnetic waves, sound, gravity, pressure, and oscillation. Actuators
are devices that produce output in the
outside environment. Various kinds of
output exist, but the most common is
robot motion. Sensors and actuators in
robots are usually composed of motors,
semiconductors, and electrical circuits.
Computers are also made of electrical
circuits, with CPU chips at their core.
This article is not about making
ordinary robots like those described
above. Some researchers in an inter-
disciplinary field somewhere between
IT and (organic) chemistry are interest-
ed in making robots out of DNA mol-
ecules. Others in an interdisciplinary
field between IT and molecular biology
are trying to convert cells such as E. coli
into robots that can do work according
to a certain design.
“Some researchers in
field between IT and
are trying to convert
cells such as E. coli
into robots that can
do work according to
a certain design.”
cal input to ordinary robots. Cells also
have various kinds of actuators. For example, the flagella of E. coli are motors
that rotate and move cells suspended
in a solution. However, the majority
of the output from a cell are chemical
Information processing inside a cell
takes place through chemical reactions,
and these reactions can form a complex
network for information processing.
Typical examples of such networks are
genetic networks based on the promotion and repression of gene expression,
and signaling networks made of cascades of protein phosphorylation.
Viruses are examples of robots that are
much smaller than cells. Viruses called
bacteriophage, familiar to students of
molecular biology, have big heads, thin
bodies and many legs, and look like
spacecraft landing on the Moon. They
actually try to land on the membranes of
bacteria, and when they are successful in
doing so, they inject their chromosomes
into the body of the bacteria.
The exciting new interdisciplinary
field that merges IT and molecular bi-