University of Minnesota team working to unlock biological mysteries

Lead researcher and Ph.D. candidate at the University of Minnesota, Judee Sharon, equates what she’s doing with test tubes and cells in a lab on campus to taking a car engine apart and learning as much as possible about the potential of each piece.

"Even though biology research has existed for arguably 100 years, there is still so little we know," says Sharon.

Through new research, Sharon and her team at the University of Minnesota have developed a platform for a new method of biocomputing they named "TRUMPET." TRUMPET (Transcriptional RNA Universal Multi-Purpose gatE plaTform) uses biological enzymes as catalysts for DNA-based molecular computing. Their focus: a single strain of DNA, how enzymes attach, and produce a glow. The glow essentially turns a light on, pointing toward countless life-improving possibilities.

"That's how we know the gate worked," says Associate Professor Kare Adamala. "We want to do the same thing a computer does, but we want to do it with goo. We want to do it with biological parts. That’s an idea that’s been around for a couple of decades now. Hopefully, as this technology develops, we’ll be able to get as reliable as computer chips; we’ll be able to do some of those really complex computations using those biological molecules."

Initial ideas for the people TRUMPET could help include anyone with something in their bodies requiring computations. Think of someone who is diabetic and in need of an insulin pump or someone who has lost an eye or an arm. TRUMPET could someday help how an amputee operates their prosthetic.

Judee Sharon works in a lab at the University of Minnesota. (FOX 9)

"It would be a good way to build prosthetic devices that can actually interface with a patient’s central nervous system. So, for example, you can imagine having an arm move, thinking about it like a natural arm," says Adamala. "We are far from that now. We are early, but this is a way to get there."

There's also potential for environmental applications. How nice would it be to never have to worry about blue-green algae again?

"You know how you can’t go swim in it because you'll get sick, but what if we were able to catch it much earlier?" asks Sharon. "And what if we were able to catch it when it was a few thousand cells instead of billions of cells that would cause an entire lake to be in the grip of algae blooms?"

While the work analyzing fragments of cells thus far has been three years in the making, there's still likely about a decade of work to be done. However, the potential, according to those doing the research, is limitless.

"Right now, we have some ideas on how to use it," says Sharon, "but we are really hoping the next generation of scientists will be able to pull it into the future and imagine technology we can’t even fathom and dream of."