iGEM 2012

Background and Motivation

In the near future, biological circuits will be much more modular and sophisticated than they are now, with a ten-fold smaller nucleotide footprint.

The Enabling Technology: Toehold-Mediated Strand Displacement

A gate strand and output strand exist as a complex that is partially bound through complementary Watson-Crick base-pairing within the S2 binding domain. The gate strand also contains an open, unbound domain called a toehold region, T*. An input signal strand with a free complementary toehold region, T, can bind to the toehold region on the gate strand, and subsequently displace the output strand to yield an input-gate complex and a free output signal strand. This is called a toehold-mediated strand displacement reaction. The output signal strand can be used as an input signal for a downstream gate-output complex, enabling sophisticated interactions which yield full logic circuits.


Qian and Winfree (Science 2011) utilized DNA computation to create AND and OR logic gates in vitro. They constructed a sophisticated binary square root circuit using these gates:
Image courtesy of Lulu Qian.

Each of these:

undergoes the same toehold-mediated strand displacement reaction. These reactions are fully modular and can be scaled to circuits of any degree of sophistication.

Motivation for Bringing Strand Displacement to Mammalian Synthetic Biology

  • More sophisticated circuits with smaller nucleotide footprint

    Sophistication of traditional transcription-translational circuits has grown linearly over the past 10 years, while sophistication of strand-displacement circuits has grown nearly exponentially.
  • Simple combinatorial design space
    With 4 nucleotides, we can create a nearly infinite number of orthogonal sequences leading to orthogonal parts.
  • Ease of composition
    The input motif matches the output motif allowing for modular cascading reactions.
  • Tunability
    We can set arbitrary digital signal thresholds by varying the concentration of circuit species. We can also achieve signal amplification by including a fuel molecule.

RNA versus DNA

An information processing system is of limited use without dynamic production. RNA is a good medium because it can be continually produced from a few initial DNA parts. As in nature, DNA acts as the information-storage medium, and RNA acts as the information-processing medium. We can transfect DNA parts into mammalian cells to co-opt existing cellular machinery to produce our RNA parts.

Our RNA parts can then interact with the cell through sensing and actuation. Endogenous cellular RNAs can act as inputs, and we can actuate by knocking down endogenous cellular RNAs.

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