Synthetic biology is revolutionizing how we conceptualize and approach the engineering of biological systems. Recent advances in the field are allowing us to expand beyond the construction and analysis of small gene networks towards the implementation of complex multicellular systems with a variety of applications. In this talk I will describe our integrated computational / experimental approach to engineering complex behavior in a variety of cells, with a focus on mammalian cells. In our research, we appropriate design principles from electrical engineering and other established fields. These principles include abstraction, standardization, modularity, and computer aided design. But we also spend considerable effort towards understanding what makes synthetic biology different from all other existing engineering disciplines and discovering new design and construction rules that are effective for this unique discipline. We will briefly describe the implementation of genetic circuits and modules with finely-tuned digital and analog behavior and the use of artificial cell-cell communication to coordinate the behavior of cell populations. The first system to be presented is a genetic circuit that can detect and destroy specific cancer cells based on the presence or absence or specific biomarkers in the cell. We will also discuss preliminary experimental results for obtaining precise spatiotemporal control over stem cell differentiation for tissue engineering applications. We will conclude by discussing the design and preliminary results for creating an artificial tissue homeostasis system where genetically engineered stem cells maintain indefinitely a desired level of pancreatic beta cells despite attacks by the autoimmune response, relevant for diabetes.
Ron Weiss is Professor in the Department of Biological Engineering and in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and is the Director of the Synthetic Biology Center at MIT. He is also the Principal Investigator of the MIT Center for Integrative Synthetic Biology established and funded in September of 2013 as part of the NIH-NIGMS national centers for systems biology (cisb.mit.edu). He received his PhD from MIT in 2001 and held a faculty appointment at Princeton University between 2001 and 2009. His research focuses primarily on synthetic biology, where he programs cell behavior by constructing and modeling biochemical and cellular computing systems.