This is a figure showing RNA sequence of command. Source: Professor Jaramillo/University of WarwickThis is a figure showing RNA sequence of command. Source: Professor Jaramillo/University of Warwick

A team of researchers led by Professor Alfonso Jaramillo from the School of Life Sciences has discovered that a common cell—ribonucleic acid (RNA), which is produced abundantly by humans, plants and animals—can be genetically engineered to allow scientists to program the actions of a cell.

Along with fighting disease and injury in humans, scientists hope to harness this technique to control plant cells and reverse environmental and agricultural issues that would make plants more resilient to disease and pests.

RNAs carry information between protein and DNA in cells, and Professor Jaramillo has proved that these molecules can be produced and organized into tailor-made sequences that feed specific instructions into cells. This would allow scientists to program cells to do what we want.

Like a Turing computer system, cells have the capacity to process and respond to instructions and codes inputted into the main system.

Just like software running on a computer, or apps on a smartphone, many different RNA sequences could be created to empower cells with a ‘virtual machine’ that can interpret a universal RNA language and perform specific actions to address different diseases or problems.

This results in a novel type of personalized and efficient healthcare that allows humans to ‘download’ a sequence of actions into cells and instructs them to execute complex decisions that are encoded into the RNA.

The researchers made the invention by modeling all possible RNA sequence interactions on the computer, constructing the DNA and encoding the optimal RNA designs that are then validated on bacterial cells in the lab.

After inducing the bacterial cells to produce the genetically engineered RNA sequences, the researchers observed they had altered the gene expression of the cells, according to the RNA program. This demonstrated that cells can be programmed with pre-defined RNA commands, just like a computer’s microprocessor.

"The capabilities of RNA molecules to interact in a predictable manner, and with alternative conformations, has allowed us to engineer networks of molecular switches that could be made to process arbitrary orders encoded in RNA. Throughout the last year, my group has been developing methodologies to enable RNA sensing the environment, perform arithmetic computations and control gene expression without relying on proteins, which makes the system universal across all living kingdoms. The cells could read the RNA 'software' to perform the encoding tasks, which could make the cells detect abnormal states, infections, or trigger developmental programs,” said Professor Alfonso Jaramillo, leader of this study.

A paper on this study was published in the journal Nucleic Acids Research.