At the University of Nottingham, a team of researchers is spearheading an ambitious project that could pull synthetic biology out of its niche and into the mainstream. With help from researchers elsewhere in the U.K., the U.S., Israel, and Spain, the team is trying to create a “reprogrammable cell” that can act as the in vivo cell equivalent to a computer’s operating system. In other words, they are trying to create cellular software that would let researchers alter living cells without changing their hardware.
The project, if successful, would mark a huge leap forward for synthetic biology as a field. Scientists could easily and quickly program cells to perform all kinds of tasks as well as create wholly new forms of life not found in nature customized for various uses. That’s another way of saying the “operating system” would allow for rapid prototyping of life forms, saving the time and energy currently consumed by returning to the drawing board each time researchers need a cell with a new function.