Can we program behaviors by changing DNA?

Microsoft announced in 2016: we can program a range of complex behaviors using DNA. “DNA is highly programmable, just like a computer. And we can program a whole range of complex behaviors using DNA molecules.”


Microsoft has developed the means to alter and program DNA in the body, and its plans to do so take on new meaning given the co-founder’s urgency to promote mRNA vaccines in response to COVID-19.

In a video (which has already been removed from the web) released by the company in 2016, several Microsoft engineers and scientists discuss some of the project’s possibilities, though the general public may not share the same enthusiasm as they do.

“Imagine a world where you can do computations inside living cells”, says Professor Georg Seelig, associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science at the Gates-funded University of Washington.

“The problem we’re trying to solve is trying to have more sophisticated diagnostics that can happen automatically inside cells”, said Dr. Neil Dalchau, a scientist at Microsoft Research.

“Imagine a biological computer working inside a living cell”, says Dr. Andrew Phillips, head of bio-computation at MR.

The project

The project is initially touted as a medical cure, but it quickly becomes clear why it’s questionable when it’s in the hands of a private company with a questionable reputation like Microsoft.

“In this project, we are trying to use DNA as a programmable material”, Dalchau says.

“DNA is highly programmable, just like a computer. And we can program a whole range of complex behaviors with DNA molecules”, Phillips mentions.

“Microsoft is essentially trying to capture, analyze and control molecular information”, Seelig adds.

This last quote coincides with how Moderna’s CEO described mRNA as an “information molecule” in relation to the coronavirus vaccine. Moderna had even trademarked the name “mRNA OS” – meaning “operating system”.

DNA Strand Shift Project

Microsoft Research, as part of its DNA strand-shifting project, has already developed software whose algorithm is designed to predict human behavior.

“We’ve developed a language to program molecular circuits made of DNA, so the programmer writes down a collection of DNA strands and the software figures out how those DNA strands interact with each other and predicts their behavior over time.”

“Ultimately, this could allow us to build biological computers that work at the molecular level.”

Microsoft has been working on DNA circuit programming since 2009. Now, with co-founder Bill Gates at the center of both the information flow and the global launch of the mRNA vaccine COVID-19, the opportunity is now for him and his company to bring this fusion of technology and medicine to the forefront.