Students Advance Synthetic Biology Research at U.Va.

February 4, 2008 — A multidisciplinary team of five University of Virginia undergraduate students have blazed a new path for research in an emerging discipline known as synthetic biology. Their innovative work culminated in an international conference presentation and a $5,000 grant from DuPont.

Fourth-year chemical engineering student George McArthur founded the Virginia Genetically Engineered Machine team in November 2006 to fill what he saw as a gap in research at U.Va. — the lack of a program dedicated specifically to the study of synthetic biology.

Synthetic biology is promising new field that essentially tries to “make biology engineerable,” McArthur said.

“The main goal of synthetic biology is to standardize biological parts so that they can be put together in predictable ways,” he said. “If you can standardize parts, you can put them together in new ways, building new circuits and even new systems.”

These new systems can be programmed much the way a computer can be, to act in a particular way. Researchers see limitless possibilities for synthetic biology, including the capacity to convert renewable resources into energy, produce new medicines and materials and remediate pollution.

McArthur enlisted faculty members from chemical engineering, biomedical engineering and biology to advise the Virginia Genetically Engineered Machine team. McArthur assembled a talented group of students through a competitive application process, including Kevin Hershey (chemical engineering), Amy Schell (biomedical engineering), Ranjan Khan (biomedical engineering), and Emre Ruhi (biology).

The group members met regularly last spring to teach themselves the basics of synthetic biology and to review and discuss literature from the field, with the object of conducting their own original research. They narrowed down a list of projects to focus on, and raised $50,000 from various U.Va. sources to support their summer research efforts. “It was really encouraging to see that kind of support for undergraduate research,” said McArthur.

The students ultimately decided on a project that would address a current, "real-world" problem — dependence on nonrenewable fuel sources. The group worked to develop a microbial system that could produce butanol biofuel from plant biomass and light.

Butanol is similar to ethanol, but harder to produce. If this production issue were addressed, it could be used in cars without the need for engine modifications and with higher efficiency than ethanol.

Ruhi notes that the group started with the bacterium Escherichia coli (E. coli), because its metabolic system is well-modeled. “Then we took bits and pieces of genetic code from different organisms in order to try to build a new system, one that is genetically modified to produce butanol.”

The team did not quite meet its ambitious goal, but was successful in implementing proteorhodopsin, a light-driven proton pump, in E. coli. Proteorhodopsin may be valuable in increasing the efficiency and yields of bioprocesses that must occur under anaerobic conditions, such as the biosynthesis of butanol.

The Virginia Genetically Engineered Machine team has set the stage for a strong future presence for synthetic biology research at U.Va. In November, members presented their work at the International Genetically Engineered Materials competition at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. DuPont recognized the groups’ efforts with a $5,000 Sustainable Growth Award grant.

“It was a good experience,” said Ruhi. “We ended up with a mathematical model, a lot of data and ways to improve. We set a good foundation for future teams.”

The 2008-09 Virginia Genetically Engineered Machine team will enroll in an independent study coordinated by Erik Fernandez, professor of chemical engineering. The course will introduce the students to the theory behind synthetic biology and allow them to develop project ideas well before the summer begins. The new team members are Dan Tarjan (second-year, biology and computer science), George Washington (second-year, chemical engineering and computer science), Patrick Gildea (second-year, chemical engineering and computer science) Eyad Lababidi (third-year, electrical engineering) and Brandon Freshcorn (second-year, biomedical engineering).

The team's benefactors include the U.Va. Engineering Foundation, the School of Engineering and Applied Science, the School of Medicine, the Office of the Vice President for Research and Graduate Studies, the departments of biomedical engineering, chemical engineering and biology.

— Written by Melissa Maki, research communications coordinator for the Office of the Vice President for Research and Graduate Studies