Seminar: Designing biology for a healthy world

Written by: Karmella Haynes. Pam Silver, from Harvard Medical School, presented to the Synthetic Biology, Yeast, and Gene Expression summer courses this year in Grace Auditorium. Her talk focused on using basic research and synthetic biology to engineer a healthy world.

Pam recounted her early experiences with the synthetic biology working group at MIT. The group was mostly composed of computer engineers; Pam noted that she was the “token biologist” in the group. However, she was very driven by the engineering ethos, and started off engineering cells that could compute.

Pam reviewed her fantastic work on engineering feedback gene circuits that allow yeast to show, via sustained yellow fluorescent protein expression, that they “remembered” a past stimulus (galactose). Interestingly, her group discovered that the host cell’s physiology can impact function of the memory device. They went on to engineer their sensor to respond to DNA damage in yeast as well as DNA damage and hypoxia in human cells.

Pam’s current interests include engineering bacteria to sense and remember when they have passed through an animal’s gut. In order to develop gene curcuit with low burden to the host, but also with highly robust behavior, she turned to the lytic/lysogenic gene switch from lambda phage, a classic model for gene regulation studies. She demonstrated that the engineered bacteria worked successfully in mice.

Pam’s outlook for the future of bioengineering is that the cost of DNA synthesis will allow the construction of full genes and even chromosomes, and do away with the need for assembling DNA piece by piece.

Pam concluded with a movie showcasing a daring new idea to make 3D-printed clothing that acts as a casing for an engineered photosynthetic microbial culture that produces nutrients and feeds them to the wearer!


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