Researchers Expand Engineering Capability at the Cellular Level

Achievement date: 
2013
Outcome/accomplishment: 

A research team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), working with funding from the Synthetic Biology Engineering Research Center (SynBERC), an NSF-funded center headquartered at the University of California at Berkeley, has developed a method to increase the number of “biological circuits” that can be embedded in a cell. This finding overcomes one of the main limitations for synthetic biology to revolutionize energy, environmental, and health science.

Impact/benefits: 

Biological circuits are at the heart of synthetic biology, which seeks to embed capabilities at the cellular level. The confined space of a cell has limited the number of circuits that can be put to work. By identifying circuit parts that could serve double-duty, the MIT research team was able to “layer” a series of circuits, with some components operating in more than one circuit at a time.

Explanation/Background: 

A key limitation in synthetic biology is that the circuits that can enable engineering of processes are based on biochemical interactions occurring in the confined volume of the cell, limiting the size of programs to what can be achieved by a few circuits.

By finding a way to maximize the number of circuits that can be embedded in individual cells, the team was able to produce the most complex synthetic circuit ever built, integrating four sensors for different molecules. The strategy will facilitate the development of large, integrated circuits in single cells, paving the way for development of new organisms that will revolutionize how we produce fuel, clean up hazardous waste, interact with the environment, and treat human disease.