SURF 2020: Genetically-Programmed Synthetic Cells and Multi-Cellular Machines

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2018 SURF project description

  • Mentor: Richard Murray

Synthetic biology focuses on the design and construction of genetically-encoded devices, pathways, networks, and systems that harness some of the capabilities of biology. A major challenge in synthetic biology is learning how to systematically design and implement biomolecular circuits that carry out useful functions such as synthesis of materials (biofuels, specialty chemicals), detection of molecular events in their environment, and biologically-compatible computations. My group's work focuses on the implementation of biomolecular feedback circuits to improve the performance, robustness, and modularity of engineering biological circuits. A particular emphasis is on the use of cell-free systems as prototyping environments for more complex systems.

By leveraging work in my group and others over the past decade, we are plausibly within 10--15 years of being able to produce genetically-programmed synthetic cells and multi-cellular machines that can carry out useful engineering operations. Unlike more traditional synthetic biology approaches, synthetic cells are non-living: they make use of genetic elements provided by biology, but they do not replicate, mutate or evolve. Applications range from synthesis of bio-compatible materials, to environmental monitoring and remediation, to self-assembly of complex multi-cellular machines that mimic some capabilities of natural systems. Pursuing this vision will require new approaches to biomolecular systems engineering, focused on moving from creation and characterization of devices to systematic specification, design, integration, and verification of circuits, subsystems, cells, and multi-component systems.

There are multiple opportunities for SURF projects to move forward with some of the initial steps in this research area. Students who are interested in this project should read the proposal attached below, formulate some thoughts on possible projects that fit with their background and expertise, and be prepared to work on a cutting edge, competitive proposal. Unlike other SURF projects, support for SURF proposals in this area is not guaranteed: students must put together a compelling proposal that matches their background and expertise in order to receive endorsement for their SURF proposal.