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Scientists lay the groundwork for the development of reprogrammable biological circuits




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  • Unique biological devices able to perform several functions, without the need for genetic engineering, offer multiple opportunities in biomedicine and bioengineering.
  • Researchers at IRB Barcelona propose a cell architecture for the development of reprogrammable biological systems in the journal Nucleic Acids Research.

Biological systems can be redesigned and genetically modified to implement new functions or acquire new abilities. For instance, a group of cells can be programmed to detect a signal (such as a hormone) and produce a specific response (such as an enzyme). However, so far, these biological devices could only perform the function for which they were originally designed.

Researchers from IRB Barcelona´s Cell Signalling laboratory, headed by Drs. Francesc Posas and Eulàlia de Nadal, have developed and validated a general cellular architecture that serves as a basis for the generation of reprogrammable biological systems. Using a single set of cells and external reprogramming molecules, the scientists have managed to run different circuits from a unique biological device. The diverse functionalities were switched on without the need for any genetic engineering or the generation of new cells.

Reprogrammable systems could be used in a wide variety of fields. “In biomedicine, a growing number of therapeutic applications rely on the use of cellular devices implanted in the patient. The possibility of having cell implants that can be reprogrammed externally to accommodate the varying needs of each patient offers incredible opportunities,” explains Dr. Posas.

Biological computation

Biological computation is a growing scientific field that aims to use living cells, and derived molecules to perform computations—meaning to process and respond to data.

“Biological reprogramming is a tool that allows biological computation to be scalable, reusable and easy to implement and it overcomes all current limitations concerning circuit complexity,” explains Dr. David Canadell, postdoctoral researcher at IRB Barcelona.


This work was done in collaboration with the Synthetic Biology for Biomedical Applications Group led by Dr. Javier Macía in the Department of Medicine and Life Sciences (MELIS) of the Universitat Pompeu Fabra (UPF).

This project has received funding from the Spanish Ministry of Science and Innovation, the Government of Catalonia, the Fundació La Marató de TV3, the Office of Naval Research (ONR) and AFOSR.


Related article:
Implementing re-configurable biological computation with distributed multicellular consortia
David Canadell, Nicolás Ortiz-Vaquerizas, Sira Mogas-Diez, Eulàlia de Nadal, Javier Macia & Francesc Posas
Nucleic Acids Research (2022) DOI: 10.1093/nar/gkac1120


About IRB Barcelona

The Institute for Research in Biomedicine (IRB Barcelona) pursues a society free of disease. To this end, it conducts multidisciplinary research of excellence to cure cancer and other diseases linked to ageing. It establishes technology transfer agreements with the pharmaceutical industry and major hospitals to bring research results closer to society, and organises a range of science outreach activities to engage the public in an open dialogue. IRB Barcelona is an international centre that hosts 400 researchers and more than 30 nationalities. Recognised as a Severo Ochoa Centre of Excellence since 2011, IRB Barcelona is a CERCA centre and member of the Barcelona Institute of Science and Technology (BIST).