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Engineered cell-cell communication via DNA messaging

Monica E Ortiz and Drew Endy*

Author Affiliations

Bioengineering Department, Stanford University, Y2E2 Room 269B, 473 Via Ortega, Stanford, CA, 94305-4201, USA

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Journal of Biological Engineering 2012, 6:16  doi:10.1186/1754-1611-6-16

Published: 7 September 2012



Evolution has selected for organisms that benefit from genetically encoded cell-cell communication. Engineers have begun to repurpose elements of natural communication systems to realize programmed pattern formation and coordinate other population-level behaviors. However, existing engineered systems rely on system-specific small molecules to send molecular messages among cells. Thus, the information transmission capacity of current engineered biological communication systems is physically limited by specific biomolecules that are capable of sending only a single message, typically “regulate transcription.”


We have engineered a cell-cell communication platform using bacteriophage M13 gene products to autonomously package and deliver heterologous DNA messages of varying lengths and encoded functions. We demonstrate the decoupling of messages from a common communication channel via the autonomous transmission of various arbitrary genetic messages. Further, we increase the range of engineered DNA messaging across semisolid media by linking message transmission or receipt to active cellular chemotaxis.


We demonstrate decoupling of a communication channel from message transmission within engineered biological systems via the autonomous targeted transduction of user-specified heterologous DNA messages. We also demonstrate that bacteriophage M13 particle production and message transduction occurs among chemotactic bacteria. We use chemotaxis to improve the range of DNA messaging, increasing both transmission distance and communication bit rates relative to existing small molecule-based communication systems. We postulate that integration of different engineered cell-cell communication platforms will allow for more complex spatial programming of dynamic cellular consortia.

Synthetic biology; Amorphous computing; Cell-cell signaling; Programmed pattern formation; Communication theory