Ongoing research work aims to build simple computers that operate inside living cells, teaching them how to grow and divide using methods similar to programming a computer to operate functions over time.

Research by Dr. Drew Endy, assistant professor of bioengineering at Stanford University and pioneer in synthetic biology, has the potential to change how people look at health and interact with the environment.

He sees biology as a technology that can be engineered to the benefit of humankind.

“When I think about bioengineering, I think about how we can partner with the living world to make the things that our civilization depends upon,” Endy said earlier this month in a video released online by the Stanford School of Engineering.

“Suppose we could partner with microbes and plants to record events, natural or otherwise, and convert this information into easily observed signals,” he said. “That would greatly expand our ability to monitor the environment.”

Endy is working on open source bioengineering tools, using DNA for cellular level data storage - the engineering of genetically encoded memory systems. He’s creating modest amounts of programmable memory within living organisms.

“I’m not excited about it because I’m going to replace my silicon computers, I’m excited about it because I’m going to get computing and data storage in a place where silicon doesn’t work,” said Dr. Endy.

“You get to 8 bits, and you can start to do things like track how old cells are, how often they divide, you keep track of that and reprogram cells as they age. “

The reprogramming of cells has implications for cells that have the ability to divide uncontrollably, developing tumors and causing cancer.

“If too many divisions are detected, programmed cell death could be set off before a tumor had a chance to form,” said Dr. Endy.

He likens his research to something quite simplistic - a light switch. Using enzymes that recognize sequences of DNA in a genome of a cell, Endy can direct the DNA to flip back and forth, creating a data storage register.

It took three years and over 600 attempts, but “we finally have one working,” he said.

The DNA counters could be implemented in every cell in a human body, tracking patterns as cells grow and divide. Once the complex patterns are understood, they could be programmed over space and time.

In regenerative medicine, one possibility could be to regrow human tissue with a better understanding of the patterns that form naturally using biologically stored data. That knowledge could in turn be used manipulate growth by adjusting the patterns as needed.

“The future of computing need not only be a question of putting people and things together with ubiquitous silicon computers,” Endy said. “The future will be much richer if we can imagine new modes of computing in new places and with new materials — and then find ways to bring those new modes to life.”