Sometimes it’s good to start with a clean slate.
That’s the idea behind a new four-year, $2 million research program at Rice University
and the University
of Washington that aims
to push the boundaries of synthetic biology by modifying run-of-the-mill
bacteria with sophisticated genetic circuits. Researchers say their plan to
create bacteria that form geometrical patterns could help scientists better
understand the behavior of stem cells.
“In complex creatures like humans and animals, cells cooperate to form
extraordinary patterns and structures from the earliest stages of embryonic
development,” says Rice bioengineer Jeff Tabor, the principal investigator
for the new project. “We want to understand the genetic programming that
makes this possible, but these cells are so complex—and there is so much going
on biochemically—that it’s hard to focus on just the piece we want.”
Tabor says Escherichia coli (E. coli) provides the researchers with a
“blank slate” because colonies of the bacteria don’t normally exhibit
patterned growth. “By inserting specific genetic circuits into E. coli—for example, genes that cause them
to grow in star patterns—we can focus on just one piece of a much larger
Rice bioengineer Oleg Igoshin, who specializes in computational
bioengineering, says, “The question is really about how much we can
control. Can we create a genetic program that forces the overall system into a
given geometric pattern?”
Igoshin and Tabor said the feedback between experiment and computational
modeling is crucial to the success of the four-year project.
“Accomplishing simple patterns may be possible with intuition, but we
will need computational models that are grounded in underlying theory to
achieve the kind of complexity that we’re aiming for,” says Igoshin,
assistant professor of bioengineering.
Tabor’s co-principal investigators on the four-year program, which was
recently awarded a competitive grant from the National Science Foundation, are
Igoshin and University
of Washington researchers
Eric Klavins, Ben Kerr, and Georg Seelig. The five come from disciplines as
diverse as electrical engineering and evolutionary biology. Tabor says such
diversity can be beneficial in synthetic biology, a new field of study that
centers upon engineering biological functions not found in nature.
“Synthetic biology has come a long way in the past decade,” says
Tabor, assistant professor in bioengineering. “There have been significant
advances in engineering cells that can sense and react to one another or to
external stimuli like light.
“The next big challenge is to build upon those techniques to program
cells that can cooperate with one another in complex, coordinated tasks.”
Igoshin and Tabor are each faculty investigators at Rice’s BioScience Research
Collaborative (BRC), and BRC Scientific Director Cindy Farach-Carson said the
grant award highlights Rice’s growing prominence in synthetic biology.
“Understanding how living systems form patterns in nature can have a
huge payoff in the development of new technologies that will improve our
world,” says Farach-Carson, Rice’s vice provost for translational
bioscience. “Imagine a world where we can control how living cells behave.
Departments in Rice’s schools of Natural Science and Engineering have been
working together to recruit the best and brightest scientists to work toward
this goal, and this award highlights the success of this recruiting effort.”