Meet the community – Ángel Goñi-Moreno
Ángel and his group, the Biocomputation Lab, are combining their knowledge of computer science and synthetic biology to design biological computers, devices built from biological tools to process information. The group seeks to understand how living systems such as bacteria process information and to apply this knowledge to environmental applications. Ángel tells us more about his recent collaborations and his work on genetic circuits at the Centre for Biotechnology and Plant Genomics at the Technical University of Madrid.
Biological computers and genetic circuits: what are they?
Ángel, who trained as a computer scientist, uses his skills to understand how living systems process information: “Computing is the processing of information so it is much more than the computers we use at home or at work, which are just a physical implementation. In the days of computer pioneers such as Alan Turing, the first computers were mathematical abstractions. And then years later, electronic engineers implemented the concept and built the physical and electronic computers that we all know.”
“My approach is to go back to mathematical abstraction and design a new physical computer, but this time a biological one. We build genetic circuits, parts of computers, to influence the expression or non-expression of genes, to trigger a cascade of transcriptional events.”
A computer without memory cannot function
The team builds models and carries out simulations to help them design the genetic circuits, i.e. the DNA sequences, which are later introduced into the cell. The cell then recognises the sequence as its own and uses it to perform new functions.
They also look into the capacity of their circuits to store information. “A computer without memory cannot function. Let’s take the example of a food vending machine. You want a bottle that costs two euros and you have already entered one euro. The machine remembers and knows that you only need to add one euro. This is the type of memory we need. For example, we design and add toggle switches that remember what happened in the previous step, so we know if an input was present before, even if it’s no longer present.”
What could biological computers bring to synthetic cell research and to society?
Living systems are constantly processing information. Bacteria, for example, detect changes in their environment and adapt by developing new functions or new behaviours. But how this process works remains unclear. “The design of increasingly complex genetic circuits allows us to learn more about life, and we can then apply this knowledge for other purposes,” explained Ángel.
“I am very interested in environmental applications. I work mainly with bacteria, because they are everywhere and form the foundations, the lower layers of every system. Imagine the impact if we could reprogramme the bacteria in a collapsing system to help restore it.”
Collaborations focused on environmental applications
Over the years, Ángel has established various collaborations with colleagues in the life sciences. “With Elizabeth Heidrich, who works in Newcastle, in the field of bioelectrochemical systems for wastewater treatment, we wanted to find out if we could communicate with Geobacter species using electrodes. These bacteria can generate electrical currents and we wanted to see if we could control their production both genetically and electronically.”
For this project, they recruited Lewis Grozinger, who had just completed a degree in theoretical computer science at Manchester University and was looking to apply his knowledge in real life. He had never heard of synthetic biology but was immediately attracted to this project at the intersection of synthetic biology and environmental sciences. “Geobacter bacteria can be used, for example, as catalysts to generate electricity from wastewater,” said Lewis.
Lewis carried out all the simulations and showed that a combined approach was possible. Lewis and Ángel, are currently exploring the possibility of moving from theory to practice, working on the physical implementation of this combined system with the help, Abraham Esteve Núñez, an expert in Geobacter.
Ángel joined the SynCellEU community a few months ago and hopes to be able to help other researchers build more complex systems. “The early days of synthetic biology were heavily influenced by computational science. We now need to go further and use computer science to add more complexity to the systems we build. This is essential if we are to better understand living systems and develop applications.”