Synthetic biology is a discipline in which living organisms are genetically programmed to carry out desired functions in a reliable manner. The field takes inspiration from our ever-expanding ability to measure and manipulate biological systems, and also from the philosophical reflections of Schrodinger and Feynman -- specifically that physical laws can be used to describe and rationally engineer biology to accomplish useful goals. Cells are the world’s most sophisticated chemists, and their ability to adapt to changing environments offers enormous potential for solving modern engineering challenges. Nonetheless, biological systems are noisy, massively interconnected, and non-linear, and they have not evolved to be easily engineered. The grand challenge of synthetic biology is to reconcile the desire for a predictable, formalized biological design process with the inherent ‘squishiness’ of biology.
This course focuses on how the complexity of biological systems can be combined with traditional engineering approaches to result in new design principles for synthetic biology. The centerpiece of the course is an immersive laboratory experience in which students work in teams to learn the practical and theoretical underpinnings of synthetic biology research. Broadly, the course explores how cellular regulation (transcriptional, translational, post-translational, and epigenetic) can be used to engineer cells that accomplish well-defined goals. Laboratory modules cover the following areas: CRISPR technologies for genome editing and gene regulation; cell-free transcription and translation systems to characterize genetic circuits and RNA regulators; modeling gene expression using ordinary differential equations; and, high-throughput DNA assembly techniques and genetic design principles.
Students will first learn essential synthetic biology techniques in a four-day ‘bootcamp’ at the beginning of the course. Following the bootcamp, they will rotate through research projects in select areas. Students will also interact closely with a panel of internationally recognized speakers who will collectively provide a broad overview of synthetic biology applications, including renewable chemical production and therapeutics, state-of-the-art techniques, case studies in human practices, and socially responsible innovation.