Bacteria Design Challenge

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This is a "grand challenge" for the Fundamentals of Complex Engineered, Organizational and Natural Systems workshop being sponsored by NSF.


Design a control circuit that can be inserted into a bacterium and that will modify its behavior so that the bacterium can be be used to deliver a drug to a specific area in an organism. The specific condition that the bacterium responds to should be more substantially more specific than current drug treatments, targetting a very localized location in the body or an organ, for example. The drugs that are released can either be synthesized within the bacterium or stored in some inert form and released at an appropriate time and location.


Rather than just experimenting with existing cellular organisms and genetic mutations to attempt the task, the circuitry used to accomplish this task should be designed, in the usual engineering sense. This includes developing a model that predicts the behavior of the control circuit in the system and can be used to iterate on the design before synthesizing the DNA that encodes the circuit. Current technology already allows simple biological circuits to be built and inserted into bacterium, and there have been many demonstrations of genetic engineering to modify the behavior of existing systems. The goal in this grand challenge is to move from a culture of experimentation and invention, to one of systematic modeling, analysis and design.


"Systems biology" and "synthetic biology" are two major growth areas within biology. For these efforts to be successful in the long run, it will be necessary to build up a systems engineering framework for biological circuit design. Recent successes in building synthetic circuits that provide novel biological function (such as an oscillator or a programmable switch) demonstrate that the basic technology is at hand. However, initial attempts to systemize synthetic biology (most notably the MIT bio-bricks program) have not yet succeeded in building working systems from libraries of standard parts. The challenge lies in exploiting the modulator of molecular biology while at the same time building enough understanding of the fundamental processes to understand key issues in building larger and larger systems from individual components.



  • Andy Ellington, UT Austin
  • Michael Elowitz, Caltech
  • Drew Endy, MIT
  • Jay Keasling, UC Berkeley
  • Chris Voigt, UC San Fracisco