New Research Advances Ability to Create “Off-the-Shelf” Biological Parts

Achievement date: 
2014
Outcome/accomplishment: 

Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have made new advances in developing “biological circuit” components that can be relied on to work the same way every time. Funding from the Synthetic Biology Engineering Research Center (SynBERC), an NSF-funded center headquartered at the University of California at Berkeley, supported the research to address a core challenge in synthetic biology: the lack of highly reproducible control elements.

Impact/benefits: 

The advances made at MIT build on their prior research and continue to expand the capability to engineer microorganisms that can execute complex tasks such as sensing and responding to their environment, tracking time to control gene expression, and even memory and simple algorithms. After learning that the measurement of two circuits did not add up when they were combined, the MIT researchers solved the problem by adding insulator parts, resulting in a circuit that consistently generated the same response. The new research refines this capability and moves the field of synthetic biology closer to its full potential.

Explanation/Background: 

Using genes as interchangeable parts, synthetic biologists can design cellular circuits to perform new functions, enabling improved organisms such as plants that produce biofuels and bacteria that can detect pollution. However, the complexity that can be achieved in such circuits has been limited by a significant bottleneck: the difficulty in assembling genetic components that do not interfere with each other. Unlike electronic circuits on a silicon chip, biological circuits inside a cell cannot be physically isolated from one another.

When the MIT researchers found that measurement of the circuits they combined did not add up, they ran a series of experiments that allowed them to determine that one of the parts in the first circuit was interfering with the activity of the second. To deal with this problem, they identified a number of potential “insulator parts” which they hoped would buffer the interference. When the insulator parts were added, the result was a circuit that worked the same every time. The new research goes further to increase the ability to engineer microorganisms for more complex tasks.