(BOSTON) — New achievements in synthetic biology announced today by researchers at the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering, which will allow complex cellular recognition reactions to proceed outside of living cells, will dare scientists to dream big: there could one day be inexpensive, shippable and accurate test kits that use saliva or a drop of blood to identify specific disease or infection — a feat that could be accomplished anywhere in the world, within minutes and without laboratory support, just by using a pocket–sized paper diagnostic tool.

That once far–fetched idea seems within closer reach as a result of two new studies describing the advances, published today in Cell, accomplished through extensive cross–team collaboration between two teams at the Wyss Institute headed by Wyss Core Faculty Members James Collins, Ph.D., and Peng Yin, Ph.D..

Paper-based Synthetic Gene Networks

"In the last fifteen years, there have been exciting advances in synthetic biology," said Collins, who is also Professor of Biomedical Engineering and Medicine at Boston University, and Co–Director and Co–Founder of the Center of 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."

The conventional process can be thought of through an analogy to computer programming. Synthetic gene networks are built to carry out functions, similar to software applications, within a living cell or in a liquid solution, which is considered the "operating system".

"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," said Collins, senior author of the first study, "Paper–Based Synthetic Gene Networks".

Leveraging an innovation for chemistry–based paper diagnostics previously devised by Wyss Institute Core Faculty Member George Whitesides, Ph.D. , the new in vitro operating system is ordinary paper.

"We've harnessed the genetic machinery of cells and embedded them in the fiber matrix of paper, which can then be freeze dried for storage and transport — we can now take synthetic biology out of the lab and use it anywhere to better understand our health and the environment," said lead author and Wyss Staff Scientist Keith Pardee, Ph.D.

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