Penn’s 2021 iGEM Team Takes Home Multiple Prizes

Four of Penn’s 2021 iGEM team (left to right): Juliette Hooper, Grace Qian, Saachi Datta, and Gloria Lee.

The University of Pennsylvania’s 2021 iGEM team has been awarded several distinctions in this year’s highly competitive iGEM Competition. The International Genetically Engineered Machine Competition is the largest synthetic biology community and the premiere synthetic biology competition for both university and high school level students from around the world. Each year, hundreds of interdisciplinary teams of students combine molecular biology techniques and engineering concepts to create novel biological systems and compete for prizes and awards through oral presentations and poster sessions.

The Penn team’s project, “OptoReader,” is a combined light-simulation device and plate reader, which makes optogenetic experiments more powerful and accessible. The abstract reads:

“Metabolic engineering has the potential to change the world, and optogenetic tools can make metabolic engineering research easier by providing spatiotemporal control over cells. However, current optogenetic experiments are low-throughput, expensive, and laborious, which makes them inaccessible to many. To tackle this problem, we combined a light-stimulation device with a plate reader, creating our OptoReader. This device allows us to automate ~100 complex optogenetic experiments at the same time. Because it is open source and inexpensive, our device would make optogenetic experiments more efficient and available to all.”

Watch the team’s presentation on OptoReader here.

This year’s Penn team was mentored by Lukasz Bugaj, Assistant Professor in Bioengineering. In addition, the team was supported by Brian Chow, Associate Professor in Bioengineering. Chow has supported previous undergraduate iGEM teams at Penn, and was involved in the creation of the iGEM program during his time as a graduate student at MIT.

OptoReader took home the top prizes in three of the four categories in which it was nominated. These prizes include:

  • Best Foundational Advance (best in track)
  • Best Hardware (best from all undergraduate teams)
  • Best Presentation (best from all undergraduate teams)

They were also awarded a Gold Medal Distinction and were included in the Top 10 Overall (from all undergraduate teams, and the only team from the United States to make the top 10) and Top 10 Websites (from all undergraduate teams).

The awards were announced during iGEM’s online Jamboree Award Ceremony on November 14, 2021 (watch the full award ceremony here).

In addition to the outstanding awards recognition, OptoReader was also selected for an iGEM Impact Grant which awards teams $2,500 to continue development of their projects. This new initiative from the iGEM Foundation was announced earlier this year, and with the support of the Frederick Gardner Cottrell Foundation, is distributing a total of $225,000 in grant funds to 90 iGEM teams during the 2021 competition season. Learn more about the Impact Grant and read the full list of winning teams here.

Penn’s 2021 iGEM team was made up of an interdisciplinary group of women undergraduates from the School of Engineering and Applied Science (SEAS) and the School of Arts and Sciences (SAS):

  • Saachi Datta (B.A. in Biology and Religious Studies 2021)
  • Juliette Hooper (B.S.E. and M.S.E. in Bioengineering 2022)
  • Gabrielle Leavitt (B.S.E. in Bioengineering 2021 and current Master’s student in Bioengineering)
  • Gloria Lee (B.A. in Physics and B.S.E. in Bioengineering 2023)
  • Grace Qian (B.S.E. in Bioengineering 2023)
  • Lana Salloum (B.A. in Neuroscience 2022)

They were mentored by three doctoral students in Bioengineering: Will Benman (Bugaj Lab), David Gonzalez Martinez (Bugaj Lab), Gabrielle Ho (Chow Lab). Saurabh Malani, a graduate student in the Avalos Lab at Prince University, was also very involved in mentoring the team.

OptoReader

The graduate mentors were instrumental in quickly bringing the undergraduates up to speed on a diverse array of skills needed to accomplish this project including circuit design, optics, optogenetics, programming, and additive manufacturing. They then coached the team through building and testing prototypes, as well as accomplishing other objectives required for success at iGEM. These other objectives included establishing collaborations with other iGEM teams, performing outreach, and effectively communicating their project through a website and online presentations.

“This team and their work is outstanding,” said William Benman. “Not only did they sweep several awards, but they did it all with a small team and while working with technology they had no prior experience with. They created a device that not only increases accessibility to optogenetics but also allows optogenetic systems to interface directly with computer programs, allowing for completely new research avenues within the field. They are truly a remarkable group.”

Due to the COVID pandemic, the team operated virtually through the summer of 2020, and then continued in person in the summer of 2021 as the project progressed and more students returned to Penn’s campus. Upon return to campus, the work was conducted in both the Bugaj lab in the Stephenson Foundation Educational Laboratory & Bio-MakerSpace, the primary teaching laboratory in Penn Bioengineering and an interdisciplinary makerspace open to anyone at Penn. The team also collaborated with the Avalos Lab at Princeton University, which conducts research in the application of optogenetics to optimize production of valuable  chemicals in microbes.

“I’m beyond excited about this phenomenal showing from team Penn at the iGEM Jamboree awards ceremony,” said faculty mentor Lukasz Bugaj. “This is truly outstanding recognition for what the team has accomplished, and it wouldn’t have happened without essential contributions from everyone on the team.”

Brian Chow added that this achievement is “no small feat,” especially for a hardware project. “The iGEM competition leans toward genetic strain engineering, but the advances in the field made by these incredible students were undeniable,” he said.

Going forward, the team plans to publish a scientific article and file a patent application describing their device. “It’s clear that there is excitement in the scientific community for what our students created, and we’re excited to share the details and designs of their work,” said Bugaj.

Congratulations to all the team members and mentors of OptoReader on this incredible achievement! Check out the OptoReader project website and Instagram to learn more about their project.

This project was supported by the Department of Bioengineering, the School of Engineering and Applied Science, and the Office of the Vice Provost for Research (OVPR). 

Yogesh Goyal Selected as 2021 STAT Wunderkind

Yogesh Goyal, Ph.D.

Yogesh Goyal, Ph.D.,  a postdoctoral researcher in Genetics and Bioengineering, has been selected as a 2021 STAT Wunderkind, which honors the “next generation of scientific superstars.” Goyal’s research is centered around developing novel mathematical and experimental frameworks to study how a rare subpopulation of cancer cells are able to survive drug therapy and develop resistance, resulting in relapse in patients. In particular, his work provides a view of different paths that single cancer cells take when becoming resistant, at unprecedented resolution and scale. This research aims to help devise novel therapeutic strategies to combat the challenge of drug resistance in cancer.

Goyal is a Jane Coffin Childs Postdoctoral Fellow in the systems biology lab of Arjun Raj, Professor in Bioengineering and Genetics at Penn. He will begin an appointment as Assistant Professor in the Department of Cell and Developmental Biology (CDB) in the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University in spring 2022.

Read the announcement in Penn Medicine News.

Alumni Spotlight: Jane Shmushkis

Jane graduated in Fall 2017 with both a B.S.E. in Bioengineering (with a Medical Devices Concentration) and M.S.E. in Bioengineering. Jane is currently an Automation Engineer at Mosa Meat (Maastricht, Netherlands) working on laboratory tools to scale up cultured beef production. Formerly, she was a Research & Development Engineer at Opentrons (Brooklyn, New York) working on affordable robots for life sciences research. She is also an instructor with Genspace Community Biology Lab (Brooklyn, New York).

Jane Shmushkis (BSE/MSE 2017)

“While at Penn, I worked in the Stephenson Foundation Educational Laboratory and Bio-MakerSpace and in the Chow Lab as a student researcher. The educational lab was a free space to mess around with rapid prototyping tools, including 3D printing, laser cutting, Arduino, and much more. The experience in synthetic biology research encouraged me to think of biology with an engineering lens and to have the confidence to plan my own experiments. The people I got to work with at the BioMakerSpace and the Chow Lab kept me optimistic through challenging semesters and excited to learn.

With this excitement to keep learning, I decided to submatriculate into the Bioengineering Master’s program. Because of the program’s flexibility, I could choose from a mix of project-based courses, like Biomechatronics and Modeling Biological Systems, and literature-based courses, like Tissue Engineering and Musculoskeletal Bioengineering. Outside of Bioengineering, I took classes to sharpen skills in part fabrication (Machine Design and Manufacturing) and programming (Computer Vision & Computational Photography). This breadth helped me realize how much I could do with a foundation in coding and mechanical design and an understanding of the life sciences.

Beyond Penn Engineering, I was involved in Penn Dance Company, CityStep Penn, and the Science & Technology Wing. Penn Dance was a necessary break for my body and mind. CityStep was a way to connect with the larger Philadelphia community through performing arts. STWing showed me how playful engineering can be. After a couple years on campus, I also built up the confidence to bike off campus. If you have a good helmet and quick reflexes, I really recommend it to explore more of Philly!”

This post is part of BE’s Alumni Spotlight series. Read more testimonies from BE Alumni on the BE website.

BE Seminar: “Engineering Synthetic Biomaterials for Islet Transplantation” (María M. Coronel)

Speaker: María M. Coronel, Ph.D.
Postdoctoral Fellow, the George W. Woodruff School of Mechanical Engineering
Georgia Institute of Technology

Date: Thursday, February 18, 2021
Time: 3:00-4:00 PM EST
Zoom – check email for link or contact ksas@seas.upenn.edu

Title: “Engineering Synthetic Biomaterials for Islet Transplantation”

Abstract:

Two major challenges to the translation of cellular-based tissue-engineered therapies are the lack of adequate oxygen support post-implantation and the need for systemic immunosuppression to halt the strong inflammatory and immunological response of the host. As such, strategies that aim at addressing oxygen demand, and local immunological responses can be highly beneficial in the translation of these therapies. In this seminar, I will focus on two biomaterial strategies to create a more favorable transplant niche for pancreatic islet transplantation. The first half will describe an in-situ oxygen-releasing biomaterial fabricated through the incorporation of solid peroxides in a silicone polymer. The implementation of this localized, controlled and sustained oxygen-generator mitigates the activation of detrimental hypoxia-induced pathways in islets and enhances the potency of extrahepatic 3D islet-loaded devices in a diabetic animal model. In the second part, I will focus on engineering synthetic biomaterials for the delivery of immunomodulatory signals for transplant acceptance. Biomaterial carriers fabricated with polyethylene glycol microgels are used to deliver immunomodulatory signals to regulate the local microenvironment and prevent allograft rejection in a clinically relevant pre-clinical transplant model. The use of synthetic materials as an off-the-shelf platform, without the need for manipulating the biological cell product, improves the clinical translatability of this engineered approach. Designing safer, responsive biomaterials to boost the delivery of targeted therapeutics will significantly reinvigorate interventional cell-based tissue-engineered therapies.

Bio:

Dr. María M. Coronel is currently a Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation postdoctoral fellow at the Georgia Institute of Technology. Dr. Coronel completed her BS degree in Biomedical Engineering from the University of Miami, and her Ph.D. degree in Biomedical Engineering from the University of Florida as a National Institute of Health predoctoral fellow. Her doctoral work focused on engineering oxygen-generating materials for addressing the universal challenge of hypoxia within three-dimensional tissue-engineered implants. As a postdoctoral fellow, her research interest focus on engineering tools and principles to understand, stimulate, and modulate the immune system to develop controlled targeted interventional therapies. In addition to research, Dr. Coronel aims to be an advocate for diversity and inclusion in STEM as the co-president of the postdoctoral group and a founding member of the diversity, equity, and inclusion committee in bioengineering at Georgia Tech. Outside of the lab María enjoys cooking, baking, and traveling.

BE/MEAM Seminar: “Microbes in Biomechanics” (Christopher J. Hernandez)

Speaker: Christopher J. Hernandez, Ph.D.
Professor, Sibley School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, Cornell University
Adjunct Scientist, Hospital for Special Surgery

Date: Thursday, February 4, 2021
Time: 3:00-4:00 PM EST
Zoom – check email for link or contact ksas@seas.upenn.edu

Title: “Microbes in Biomechanics”

This seminar is jointly hosted by the Department of Bioengineering and the Department of Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mechanics.

Abstract:

The idea that mechanical stresses influence the growth and form of organs and organisms originated in the 1800s and is the basis for the modern study of biomechanics and mechanobiology. Biomechanics and mechanobiology are well studied in eukaryotic systems, yet eukaryotes represent only a small portion of the diversity and abundance of life on Earth. Bacteria exhibit broad influences on human health (as both pathogens and as beneficial components of the gut microbiome) and processes used in biotechnology and synthetic biology. Over the past eight years my group has explored mechanobiology within individual bacteria and the effects of changes in the composition of commensal bacterial communities on the biomechanics in the musculoskeletal system.

The ability of the bacteria to not only resist mechanical loads (biomechanics) but also to respond to changes in the mechanical environment (mechanobiology) is necessary for survival. Here I describe a novel microfluidic platform used to explore the biomechanics and mechanobiology of individual, live bacteria. I discuss work from my group demonstrating that mechanical stress within the bacterial cell envelope can influence the assembly and function of multicomponent efflux pumps used by bacteria to resist toxins and antibiotics. Additionally, I share some of our more recent work showing that mechanical stress and strain within the bacterial cell envelope can stimulate a bacterial two-component system controlling gene expression. Our findings demonstrate that bacteria, like mammalian cells, have mechanosensitive systems that are key to survival.

In musculoskeletal disease, bacteria are commonly viewed as sources of infection. However, in the past decade the studies by my group and others have suggested that commensal bacteria – the microbiome – can modulate the pathogenesis of musculoskeletal disorders. My group is among the first to study the effects of the gut microbiome on orthopaedic disorders. Here I provide an introduction to the microbiome and current concepts of how modifications to the gut microbiome could influence the musculoskeletal system. Specifically, I discuss studies from my group which are the first to demonstrate that the gut microbiome influences bone biomechanics and the development of infection of orthopaedic implants.

Bio:

Dr. Hernandez is Professor in the Sibley School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at Cornell University and is an Adjunct Scientist at the Hospital for Special Surgery. Dr. Hernandez is a Fellow of the American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering (AIMBE), the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME), and the American Society for Bone and Mineral Research (ASBMR). He is the 2018 recipient of the Fuller Albright Award for Scientific Excellence from the American Society for Bone and Mineral Research. He has served on the Board of Directors of the Orthopaedic Research Society and the American Society for Bone and Mineral Research. His laboratory’s research currently focuses on the effects of the microbiome on bone and joint disorders, periprosthetic joint infection and the biomechanics and mechanobiology of bacteria.

hernandezresearch.com

BE Seminar: “High-throughput Screening of a Combinatorial CAR Co-stimulatory Domain Library” (Kyle Daniels)

Kyle Daniels, PhD

Speaker: Kyle Daniels, Ph.D.
Postdoctoral Scholar, Cellular Molecular Pharmacology
University of California, San Francisco

Date: Thursday, October 22, 2020
Time: 3:00-4:00 PM EDT
Zoom – check email for link or contact ksas@seas.upenn.edu

Title: “High-throughput Screening of a Combinatorial CAR Co-stimulatory Domain Library”

Abstract:

CAR T cells—T cells engineered to express a chimeric antigen receptor that redirects their function to a specific antigen—have proven to be an effective therapy for certain B cell cancers, but many issues remain in order to apply CAR T cells to a broader range of cancers. The activity of CAR T cells can be modulated by varying their co-stimulatory domains. Most CARs use co-stimulatory domains from natural proteins such as 41BB or CD28, each of which contains motifs that recruit unique signaling molecules and elicit a corresponding T cell response. One strategy to achieve increased control over T cell function is to engineer synthetic co-stimulatory domains composed of novel combinations of motifs from natural co-stimulatory proteins. We constructed libraries of CARs containing synthetic co-stimulatory domains and screened these library in primary human T cells for the ability to promote proliferation, degranulation, and memory formation. The results of the screens give insights into how signaling motifs dictate cell function and offer clues on how to engineer co-stimulatory domains that promote desired CAR T cell functions.

Bio:

Kyle completed his BS in Biochemistry at University of Maryland-College Park, and did undergraduate research in the lab of Dorothy Beckett where he studied ligand binding to biotin protein ligases. He did his graduate work at Duke University with Terry Oas working to understand the mechanism of coupled binding and folding in the protein subunit of B. subtilis RNase P. He is currently a postdoctoral fellow in Wendell Lim’s lab at UCSF studying how combinations of linear motifs in receptors dictate cell function. He was an HHMI undergraduate researcher, an NSF graduate research fellow, and a Damon Runyon Cancer Research Foundation postdoctoral fellow. His research interests include synthetic biology, how cells process information and make decisions, and cellular therapy. Outside of lab, he enjoys swimming, videogames, and quality time with friends.

See the full list of upcoming Penn Bioengineering fall seminars here.

BE Seminar: “Predicting the Effects of Engineering Immune Cells Using Systems Biology Modeling” (Stacey Finley, USC)

The Penn Bioengineering virtual seminar series continues on October 1st.

Stacey Finley, PhD

 

Speaker: Stacey Finley, Ph.D.
Gordon S. Marshall Early Career Chair and Associate Professor of Biomedical Engineering and Biological Sciences
University of Southern California

 

Date: Thursday, October 1, 2020
Time: 3:00-4:00 pm
Zoom – check email for link or contact ksas@seas.upenn.edu

Title: “Predicting the Effects of Engineering Immune Cells Using Systems Biology Modeling”

Abstract:

Systems biology approaches, including computational models, provide a framework to test biological hypotheses and optimize effective therapeutic strategies to treat human diseases. In this talk, I present recent work in modeling signaling in cancer-targeting immune cells, including CAR T cells at Natural Killer cells. Chimeric antigen receptors (CARs) are comprised of a variety of different activating domains and co-stimulatory domains that initiate signaling required for T cell activation. There is a lack of understanding of the mechanisms by which activation occurs. We apply mathematical modeling to investigate how CAR structure influences downstream T cell signaling and develop new hypotheses for the optimal design of CAR-engineered T cell systems. Natural Killer cells also provide a useful platform for targeting cancer cells. However, NK cells have been shown to exhibit reduced killing ability with prolonged stimulation by cancer cells. We use a combination of mechanistic model, optimal control theory and in silico synthetic biology to investigate strategies to enhance NK cell-mediated killing.

Bio:

Stacey D. Finley is the Gordon S. Marshall Early Career Chair and Associate Professor of Biomedical Engineering at the University of Southern California. Dr. Finley received her B.S. in Chemical Engineering from Florida A & M University and obtained her Ph.D. in Chemical Engineering from Northwestern University. She completed postdoctoral training at Johns Hopkins University in the Department of Biomedical Engineering. Dr. Finley joined the faculty at USC in 2013, and she leads the Computational Systems Biology Laboratory. Dr. Finley has joint appointments in the Departments of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science and Biological Science, and she is a member of the USC Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center. Dr. Finley is also the Director of the Center for Computational Modeling of Cancer at USC. Her research is supported by grants from NSF, NIH, and the American Cancer Society.

Selected honors: 2016 NSF Faculty Early CAREER Award; 2016 Young Innovator by the Cellular and Molecular Bioengineering journal; Leah Edelstein-Keshet Prize from the Society of Mathematical Biology; Junior Research Award from the USC Viterbi School of Engineering; the Hanna Reisler Mentorship Award; 2018 AACR NextGen Star; 2018 Orange County Engineering Council Outstanding Young Engineer

See the full list of upcoming Penn Bioengineering fall seminars here.

César de la Fuente Wins Inaugural NEMO Prize, Will Develop Rapid COVID Virus Breath Tests

The paper-based tests could be integrated directly into facemasks and provide instant results at testing sites.

Cesar de la Fuente-Nunez, PhD

When Penn Health-Tech announced its Nemirovsky Engineering and Medicine Opportunity, or NEMO Prize, in February, the center’s researchers could only begin to imagine the impact the looming COVID-19 pandemic was about to unleash. But with the promise of $80,000 to support early-stage ideas at the intersection of engineering and medicine, the contest quickly sparked a winning innovation aimed at combating the crisis.

Judges from the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences and Perelman School of Medicine awarded its first NEMO Prize to César de la Fuente, PhD, who proposed a paper-based COVID diagnostic system that could capture viral particles on a person’s breath, then give a result in a matter of seconds when taken to a testing site.

Similar tests for bacteria cost less than a dollar each to make. De la Fuente, a Presidential Assistant Professor in the departments of Psychiatry, Microbiology, and Bioengineering, is aiming to make COVID tests at a similar price point and with a smaller footprint so that they could be directly integrated into facemasks, providing further incentive for their regular use.

“Wearing a facemask is vital to containing the spread of COVID because, before you know you’re sick, they block your virus-carrying droplets so those droplets can’t infect others,” de la Fuente says. “What we’re proposing could eventually lead to a mask that can be infected by the virus and let you know that you’re infected, too.”

De la Fuente’s lab has conducted molecular dynamic simulations of the regions of the SARS-COV-2 spike protein (blue) that bind to the human ACE2 receptor (red and yellow).

De la Fuente’s expertise is in synthetic biology and molecular-scale simulations of disease-causing viruses and bacteria. Having such fine-grained computational models of these microbes’ binding sites allow de la Fuente to test them against massive libraries of proteins, seeing which bind best. Other machine learning techniques can then further narrow down the minimum molecular structures responsible for binding, resulting in functional protein fragments that are easier to synthesize and manipulate.

The spike-shaped proteins that give coronaviruses their crown-like appearance and name bind to a human receptor known as ACE2. De la Fuente and his colleagues are now aiming to characterize the molecular elements and environmental factors that would allow for the most precise, reliable detection of the virus.

Read the full story on the Penn Engineering blog.

BE Seminar Series: March 5th with Tara L. Deans, Ph.D.

Our next Penn Bioengineering seminar will be held this Thursday. We hope to see you there!

Speaker: Tara L. Deans, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor
Biomedical Engineering
University of Utah

Date: Thursday, March 5, 2020
Time: 12:00-1:00 pm
Location: Room 337, Towne Building

Title: “Engineering Stem Cells to Create Novel Delivery Vehicles”

 

Abstract:

Synthetic biology has transformed how cells can be reprogrammed, providing a means to reliably and predictably control cell behavior with the assembly of genetic parts into more complex gene circuits. Using approaches and tools in synthetic biology, we are programming stem cells with novel genetic tools to control genes and pathways that result in changes in stem cell fate decisions, in addition to reprogramming terminally differentiated cells to function as unique therapeutic diagnostic and delivery vehicles.

Bio:

Dr. Tara Deans received her PhD from Boston University in Biomedical Engineering. Following her postdoctoral training at Johns Hopkins University, she became an Assistant Professor in Biomedical Engineering at the University of Utah. Currently, Dr. Deans runs an applied mammalian synthetic biology laboratory where her lab focuses on building novel genetic tools to study the mechanisms of stem cell differentiation for the purpose of directing cell fate decisions. Recently, Dr. Deans received four prestigious awards to support this area of research: the NSF CAREER Award, the Office of Naval Research (ONR) Young Investigator Award, the NIH Trailblazer Award and an NIH Director’s New Innovator Award. In addition to her research, Dr. Deans was recently named a STEM Ambassador in the STEM Ambassador Program (STEMAP) at the University of Utah to engage underrepresented groups in STEM fields.

BE Seminar Series: February 13th with Jeffrey J. Tabor, Ph.D.

Our next Penn Bioengineering seminar is coming up soon. We hope to see you there!

Jeffrey J. Tabor, Ph.D.

Speaker: Jeffrey J. Tabor, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Bioengineering and BioSciences
Rice University

Date: Thursday, February 13, 2020
Time: 12:00-1:00 pm
Location: Room 337, Towne Building

 

Title: “Repurposing bacterial two-component systems as sensors for synthetic biology applications”

Abstract:

Two-component systems (TCSs) are the largest family of signal transduction pathways in biology, and a treasure trove of biosensors for engineering applications. Though present in plants and other eukaryotes, TCSs are ubiquitous in bacteria. Bacteria use TCSs to sense everything from metal ions to carbohydrates and light, and activate responses such as biofilm formation, antibiotic-resistance, and virulence. Despite their importance, the vast majority of TCSs remain uncharacterized. The major challenges are that most bacteria cannot be cultured nor genetically manipulated in the laboratory, and that many TCSs are silenced by poorly-understood gene regulatory networks in laboratory conditions. We have recently developed synthetic biology technologies to address these challenges. In particular, we have developed dual inducible promoter systems that allow us simultaneously express both TCS proteins to optimal levels in the model Gram-negative and Gram-positive bacteria E. coli and B. subtilis. In addition, we have developed a method to modularly interchange the DNA-binding domains of response regulator proteins, enabling unknown or silent TCS output promoters to be replaced with well-characterized alternatives. Finally, we have developed a method to rationally tune the amount of input signal required to activate a TCS over several orders of magnitude by introducing mutations that specifically alter the intrinsic phosphatase activity of the sensor histidine kinase protein. Using these methods, we have repurposed cyanobacterial TCSs to function as optogenetic tools with wavelength specificities from the ultraviolet (380 nm) to the near infrared (770 nm), engineered gut bacteria that diagnose colon inflammation in mice, and discovered a novel pH-sensing TCS in the genome of Yersinia pestis, the causative agent of bubonic plague. Additionally, we have constructed a library of >500 uncharacterized TCSs from the human gut microbiome, which we are screening for novel sensors of gut metabolites and diseases in humans. Finally, we are using our methods to develop new anti-virulence compounds that inhibit TCSs that regulate pathogenesis in major human pathogens. Our work is accelerating fundamental microbiological discoveries and has broad applications in synthetic biology.

Bio:

Since coming to Rice in 2010, Tabor’s work at the interface of synthetic chemistry and molecular/cell biology has led to more than 30 peer-reviewed journal publications and five patent applications. Additional awards he has received include a Collaborative Research Award from the John S. Dunn Foundation (2016), a Michel Systems Biology Innovation Award (2013), a Hamill Innovation Award (2011) by Rice’s Institute of Biosciences and Bioengineering, and a National Academies Keck Futures Initiative (NAKFI) award (2009). Tabor is an affiliated investigator of the NSF Synthetic Biology Engineering Research Center (SynBERC), a member of the editorial board of ACS Synthetic Biology, and has served on an NIH study section and five NSF panels. He also co-organized Synthetic Biology 5.0 – the leading conference in the field.