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A new OS for synthetic biology

Researchers at the Wyss Institute for Biologically inspired Engineering have found a way to create test kits based on simple paper to detect molecules and identify pathogens quickly, at very low cost and in any place.
James Collins, one of the researchers, summarises their result with these words:
“What we have been able to do is to create an in vitro, sterile, abiotic operating system upon which we can rationally design synthetic, biological mechanisms to carry out specific functions. In the last fifteen years, there have been exciting advances in synthetic biology, but until now, researchers have been limited in their progress due to the complexity of biological systems and the challenges faced when trying to re-purpose them. Synthetic biology has been confined to the laboratory, operating within living cells or in liquid-solution test tubes.” 
Genes are the instruction code in a cell and the ensemble of the cell materials and structures can be seen as a liquid operating system. Researchers have been able to use artificial genes (most of the time extracted from a cell from another specie) to reprogram the working of the cell, e.g. to make it produce a certain protein.
What the researchers at Wyss have been able to do is to create an ambient outside of a cell for genes to work. In practice they have been able to transfer the genetic machinery of a cell planting it inside the finer matrix of paper.
The researchers have tested their idea by creating several testing kits, including one to detect various strains of the Ebola virus. In practice the paper lab can be programmed to detect specific complex molecules, such as a virus.
So far the sensitivity is low, which means that there should be a significant number of molecules for the test to work. Next steps is to increase the sensitivity so that even a few molecules would be sufficient for detection.

About Roberto Saracco

Roberto Saracco fell in love with technology and its implications long time ago. His background is in math and computer science. Until April 2017 he led the EIT Digital Italian Node and then was head of the Industrial Doctoral School of EIT Digital up to September 2018. Previously, up to December 2011 he was the Director of the Telecom Italia Future Centre in Venice, looking at the interplay of technology evolution, economics and society. At the turn of the century he led a World Bank-Infodev project to stimulate entrepreneurship in Latin America. He is a senior member of IEEE where he leads the New Initiative Committee and co-chairs the Digital Reality Initiative. He is a member of the IEEE in 2050 Ad Hoc Committee. He teaches a Master course on Technology Forecasting and Market impact at the University of Trento. He has published over 100 papers in journals and magazines and 14 books.