Research highlight

Synthetic biology: Mind-controlled gene expression

Nature Communications

November 12, 2014

A system that uses a mind-controlled implant to wirelessly control gene expression is reported online in Nature Communications. This device has been used by human participants to control gene expression in mice.

Synthetic biology has significantly advanced the design of gene switches that are responsive to cues such as light, gas and radio waves. On the other hand, cybernetics has developed functional human-machine interfaces, in which brain-computer interfaces process brain waves to control electronic prostheses, such as bionic extremities and even wheel chairs.

Martin Fussenegger and colleagues conceived and constructed an implant that contains cells engineered to activate a gene when exposed to light. This activation then results in the production of a protein. The cells were implanted in mice, together with an LED light that can be switched on wirelessly. By connecting this wireless control system to a commercially available brain-machine interface, human participants were able to switch the implanted LED on or off by concentrating, and in doing so, control the expression of a specific gene in the mice.

Although the device is a long way from clinical application, the study illustrates the growing interest in using so-called optogenetic devices, which allow control of biological processes using light, in a therapeutic setting. Further research is necessary to fully explore the potential applications of merging of synthetic biology and cybernetics but the authors hope that in the future devices based on this design could allow patients with locked-in syndrome to self-administer pain-relieving drugs.

doi: 10.1038/ncomms6392

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