If you were a bacterium, the virus M13 might seem innocuous enough. It insinuates more than it invades, setting up shop like a freeloading houseguest, not a killer. Once inside it makes itself at home, eating your food, texting indiscriminately. Recently, however, bioengineers at Stanford University have given M13 a bit of a makeover. The researchers, Monica Ortiz, a doctoral candidate in bioengineering, and Drew Endy, PhD, an assistant professor of bioengineering, have parasitized the parasite and harnessed M13’s key attributes—its non-lethality and its ability to package and broadcast arbitrary DNA strands—to create what might be termed the biological Internet, or “Bi-Fi.”
Using the virus, Ortiz and Endy have created a biological mechanism to send genetic messages from cell to cell. The system greatly increases the complexity and amount of data that can be communicated between cells and could lead to greater control of biological functions within cell communities. The advance could prove a boon to bioengineers looking to create complex, multicellular communities that work in concert to accomplish important biological functions.
M13 is a packager of genetic messages. It reproduces within its host, taking strands of DNA—strands that engineers can control—wrapping them up one by one and sending them out encapsulated within proteins produced by M13 that can infect other cells. Once inside the new hosts, they release the packaged DNA message. The M13-based system is essentially a communication channel. It acts like a wireless Internet connection that enables cells to send or receive messages, but it does not care what secrets the transmitted messages contain. “Effectively, we’ve separated the message from the channel. We can now send any DNA message we want to specific cells within a complex microbial community,” said Ortiz, the first author of the study.
Down the road, the biological Internet could lead to biosynthetic factories in which huge masses of microbes collaborate to make more complicated fuels, pharmaceuticals and other useful chemicals. With improvements, the engineers say, their cell-cell communication platform might someday allow more complex three-dimensional programming of cellular systems, including the regeneration of tissue or organs.