Cell Free Tech based in Cork have just made a world first demonstration of a DNA programmed bio-computer that can play tetris and some other retro classics. Their first product is an 8×8 bio-pixel display that they call bixels (bixels.io). It may be small but it is still powerful enough to play the old favourites Tetris, pong, and snake!
The team have hacked the cell and extracted the billion-year-old processor, the tiny nano- machinery, that is responsible for reading DNA and writing proteins, enzymes hormones and medicines. It is one of the few techniques available that can use DNA programs but is still completely safe and non-GMO. While games consoles use code, or electronic signals, to program, the team at cell-free use DNA. So it is just like a cartridge that allows you to plug-and-play. For this team, computers are as much about fun as they are about work which is why they chose retro-games as the application of their first product.
The vision is much more ambitious, however. Their goal is to build the personal bio-computer which, unlike conventional electronic wearables, truly interacts with our bodies, speaking the natural languages of hormones and pheromones. Whether for medical or lifestyle reasons people want to interact with their environments in sophisticated ways. The smart devices of today can only make relatively crude measurements since they are simply not speaking the natural language of cells.
Chief Creative Officer Helene Steiner, formerly of Microsoft Research and Royal College of Art, explains “Our challenge is integrating smart devices seamlessly with our lifestyles. The bio-computer we are developing is not stuck in the test tube but can be embedded in wearables and even smart textiles.”
The eclectic team of four feature a designer, biochemist, physicist and a robotics engineer. Their dream has managed a few converts already and they have already raised $250K from Sean O’Sullivan Ventures (SOSV). Since then have been working tirelessly to get their first product ready for market. Their story started in Cambridge UK, while CEO Dr Thomas Meany was researching quantum enhanced sensors. Thomas describes how biotechnology changed his life “While working in the Toshiba Cambridge Research Labs I worked in the healthcare division and we started learning about synthetic biology. Biology became like computer science so I quit and started work in a Plant Science Department! ” The technology the team have created is cheap, easy to use and, most importantly, non-GMO. The team break open cells and remove the replication machinery, like the cell wall, so that all that is left is a biochemical soup containing bio-processors whose only job is to read DNA and make things.
Cell-Free is not a new topic, in fact it has been popular in research labs since the 50s. But it took the team a long time to finally figure out how to break open cells, without damaging the inner workings, at scale. CSO Ian McDermott, a protein engineer trained in the Manchester Institute of Biotechnology, describes his achievement,
“It was a real eureka moment when we finally cracked it. The same thing farmers hate in their milk, bacteriophage infection, is the magic ingredient that makes our cells break open like Christmas crackers!”
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