New Life Sciences and Engineering Center Promotes Synthetic Biology Research

Boston University has recently proposed building a seven-story, 150,000-square-foot life sciences and engineering building to house a new center focused on synthetic biology research, as an addition to its Charles River campus. Named ‘The Center for Integrated Life Sciences and Engineering’, the building will replace an existing parking lot on 610 Commonwealth Avenue that is currently owned by BU. The university filed plans for the new facility with the City of Boston just last month, stating it would “provide additional interdisciplinary research space for faculty and students in neuroscience and systems/synthetic biology” in order to “to keep pace with the burgeoning bioengineering industry.”

The center’s main seven floors will provide lab and collaboration areas, as well as academic and administrative space.  In addition, a mechanical penthouse will be located on the top floor housing machinery needed to support the center’s research programs. In the last few years, as computing power has multiplied and the cost of decoding and synthesizing DNA has nose-dived, the promise of synthetic biological to solve important problems has never been greater. For example, research on oil spill cleanup is high on the agenda and will employ customized microbes. Another project on weapons detection will use synthetic biology to create programmable robots, and has received $7.5 million funding from the Office of Naval Research.

The program intends to create a dynamic trio of humans, robots, and genetically engineered bacteria, working together to detect whatever the bacteria are programmed to detect. The customized bacteria will talk to one another, and they will report to miniature “chaperone robots,” a mere 10 to 100 centimeters long, that will each control thousands of microbes. Finally, the chaperone robots will wirelessly report back to humans.

James Collins, a William Fairfield Warren Distinguished Professor and Professor of Biomedical Engineering, and pioneer in synthetic biology and Calin Belta, an ENG associate professor of mechanical engineering, systems engineering, and bioinformatics, are the two BU faculty working on the project. The Collins group will determine the DNA modifications required to engineer bacteria while Belta will help design and assemble both the microbiotic and chaperone robots.

Douglas Densmore, the Richard and Minda Reidy Family Career Development Assistant Professor in the College of Electrical and Computer Engineering, will find the best way to assemble and verify the DNA used to enable the microbes to sense specific environmental signals. “The idea,” says Densmore, “is to engineer living organisms—in this case bacteria—that respond to external stimuli in the environment. They will generate a fluorescent or chemical signal that can be measured by the chaperone robots, which can produce signals as well that the bacteria can detect. So you have a two-way communication system. And finally, we will create chaperone robots that can also communicate with human users.”

“There is a group of biologists out there who say, ‘Biology is way too complicated to engineer,’” Densmore says. “Biology is complicated, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to push the boundaries. We are saying, ‘Let’s not wait. We are going to learn things and we are going to predict things and we are going to build things.’”

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