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Engineered DNA counts it out

Man-made gene network can tally a series of three

Graceful waltzers can count to three, and now stretches of man-made DNA can do it too. Researchers have built a series of genes and put them into bacterial cells, enabling the cells to tally events. The new counters may endow engineered cells with previously impossible functions, the team reports in the May 29 Science.

The engineered counters may be used to monitor toxins in the environment or keep track of the number of times a cell divides. The system can even be programmed to destroy the cell that holds it after a certain number of events.

“This is the first example of a synthetic counter in the field,” says Christina Smolke, a bioengineer at Stanford University and the author of a commentary published in the same issue of Science. Although these new counters are simple, “the first step is building the framework. The next step is, how do we start tailoring these to respond to something relevant? There are a lot of places to take this.”

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