Researchers are harnessing the key attibutes of a virus 'M13' to develop the first biological Internet or 'Bi-Fi' by creating a mechanism to send genetic messages from cell to cell.
The system greatly increases the complexity and amount of data that can be communicated between cells and could lead to greater control of biological functions within cell communities.
Bio-engineering researchers Monica Ortiz and Drew Endy from Stanford University have parasitised the parasite and harnessed M13's key attributes — its non-lethality and its ability to package and broadcast arbitrary DNA strands — to create the biological Internet or 'Bi-Fi'.
Biological Internet could lead to biosynthetic factories in which huge masses of microbes collaborate to make more complicated fuels, pharmaceuticals and other useful chemicals, including the regeneration of tissue or organs in future, a Stanford statement said.
Ortiz was even able to broadcast her genetic messages between cells separated by a gelatinous medium at a distance greater than seven centimetres.
"That's very long-range communication, cellularly speaking," she said.
The virus 'M13' is a packager of genetic messages. It reproduces within its host, taking strands of DNA - strands that engineers can control - wrapping them up one by one and sending them out encapsulated within proteins produced by M13 that can infect other cells.
The M13-based system is essentially a communication channel. It acts like a wireless Internet connection that enables cells to send or receive messages, but it does not care what secrets the transmitted messages contain.
"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, who led the study.
It is well-known that cells naturally use various mechanisms, including chemicals, to communicate, but such messaging can be extremely limited in both complexity and bandwidth.
The findings are published in the Journal of 'Biological Engineering'.