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The Living Software Revolution

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Understanding biological computation

The cells within living organisms operate as tiny computers, executing molecular-scale programs to do all the amazing things they do. If we can figure out how these programs work, we can apply that knowledge in useful ways.

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Every living organism is made of cells. And every cell contains DNA molecules, which encode the genetic instructions for how those cells operate.

Pretty exciting, right? There is still much to be learned to make this new computing paradigm as safe, responsible and reliable as traditional computing.

We are working in partnership with the scientific community to address these challenges up front.

The industry is still at the early stages of the programming biology revolution – but before very long, we may be able to transform healthcare, agriculture and energy for a healthier world.

Building on a legacy of expertise

You might be wondering why Microsoft would be interested in understanding biological programming. Software computing is made possible by encoding ones and zeroes on microchips. Something similar happens within the cells of living organisms, but the “code” here is represented by Gs, Cs, As and Ts – the building blocks of DNA.

At Microsoft, a team known as Station B has been working with select partners to leverage our expertise in building programming languages and compilers, machine learning and cloud capabilities to develop the tools that will allow scientists to uncover the computation in living systems, and to make programming biology as safe and robust as traditional software programming.

From observation to action

To translate high level designs of biological behavior into circuits that can be assembled in a lab, we need the equivalent of a “genetic compiler.” Just as software development is reliable and replicable today, our tools will enable scientists to design genetic circuits, build them in the lab, test whether they produce the right behavior, and learn from the experiments.

With these tools, scientists can design genetic circuits to modify the behavior of cells. In the future, for example, these technologies could help treat an Alzheimer’s patient by stimulating new brain cells, or allow plants to resist certain pests and deliver higher crop yields.

Nature knows best

The tools to enable more effective and robust programming of biology might also allow scientists to develop new synthetic solutions to old problems. For example, they could scale up the manufacture of biofuels, find new treatments to help our bodies fight disease or even engineer solar cells inspired by how plants carry out photosynthesis.

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