Monica Ortiz, a doctoral candidate in bioengineering, and Drew Endy, an assistant professor of bioengineering said they succeeded in using the M13 bacteriophage as a carrier of genetic messages to build what they call a "biological Internet".
M13, a non-lethal virus which as the ability to "broadcast" DNA, can be used to pick up arbitrary DNA strands and transport them to certain cells over a distance of up to 7 cm, which is about 79,500 times its own length (880 nm). The researchers said that M13 transports messages in the form of commands, but does not care what the content of the message is. At its destination, M13 releases the command.
"Effectively, we've separated the message from the channel. We can now send any DNA message we want to specific cells within a complex microbial community," said Ortiz, the first author of the study.
According to the research, M13 can be used to create much more complex communication between cells and "include any sort of genetic instruction: start growing, stop growing, come closer, swim away, produce insulin and so forth." The vision is the creation of "biosynthetic factories in which huge masses of microbes collaborate to make more complicated fuels, pharmaceuticals and other useful chemicals." Even the regeneration of tissue and organs may be possible.