Synthetic biology: from parts to modules to therapeutic systems
Synthetic biology is revolutionizing how we conceptualize and approach the engineering of biological systems. Recent advances in the field are allowing us to expand beyond the construction and analysis of small gene networks towards the implementation of complex multicellular systems with a variety of applications. In this talk I will describe our integrated computational / experimental approach to engineering complex behavior in living systems ranging from bacteria to stem cells. In our research, we appropriate design principles from electrical engineering and other established fields. These principles include abstraction, standardization, modularity, and computer aided design. But we also spend considerable effort towards understanding what makes synthetic biology different from all other existing engineering disciplines and discovering new design and construction rules that are effective for this unique discipline. We will briefly describe the implementation of genetic circuits and modules with finely-tuned digital and analog behavior and the use of artificial cell-cell communication to coordinate the behavior of cell populations. The first system to be presented is an RNAi-based logic circuit that can detect and destroy specific cancer cells based on their microRNA expression profiles. We will also discuss preliminary experimental results for obtaining precise spatiotemporal control over stem cell differentiation for tissue engineering applications. We will conclude by discussing the design and preliminary results for creating an artificial tissue homeostasis system where genetically engineered stem cells maintain indefinitely a desired level of pancreatic beta cells despite attacks by the autoimmune response, relevant for diabetes.
Ron Weiss is an Associate Professor in the Department of Biological Engineering and in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He received his PhD from MIT in 2001 and held a faculty appointment at Princeton University between 2001 and 2009. His research focuses primarily on synthetic biology, where he programs cell behavior by constructing and modeling biochemical and cellular computing systems. A major thrust of his work is the synthesis of gene networks that are engineered to perform in vivo analog and digital logic computation. He is also interested in programming cell aggregates to perform coordinated tasks using cell-cell communication with chemical diffusion mechanisms such as quorum sensing. He has constructed and tested several novel in vivo biochemical logic circuits and intercellular communication systems. Weiss is interested in both hands-on experimental work and in implementing software infrastructures for simulation and design work. For his work in synthetic biology, Weiss has received MIT's Technology Review Magazine's TR100 Award ("top 100 young innovators", 2003), was selected as a speaker for the National Academy of Engineering's Frontiers of Engineering Symposium (2003), received the E. Lawrence Keyes, Jr./Emerson Electric Company Faculty Advancement Award at Princeton University (2003), his research in Synthetic Biology was named by MIT's Technology Review Magazine as one of "10 emerging technologies that will change your world" (2004), was chosen as a finalist for the World Technology Network’s Biotechnology Award (2004), and was selected as a speaker for the National Academy of Sciences Frontiers of Science Symposium (2005).