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Translational Regulation using Artificial Introns and ncRNAs

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Synthetic biology is an emerging engineering disciple, which designs and controls biological systems for creation of materials, biosensors, biocomputing, and much more. To better control and engineer these systems, modular genetic components which allow for highly specific and high dynamic

Synthetic biology is an emerging engineering disciple, which designs and controls biological systems for creation of materials, biosensors, biocomputing, and much more. To better control and engineer these systems, modular genetic components which allow for highly specific and high dynamic range genetic regulation are necessary. Currently the field struggles to demonstrate reliable regulators which are programmable and specific, yet also allow for a high dynamic range of control. Inspired by the characteristics of the RNA toehold switch in E. coli, this project attempts utilize artificial introns and complementary trans-acting RNAs for gene regulation in a eukaryote host, S. cerevisiae. Following modification to an artificial intron, splicing control with RNA hairpins was demonstrated. Temperature shifts led to increased protein production likely due to increased splicing due to hairpin loosening. Progress is underway to demonstrate trans-acting RNA interaction to control splicing. With continued development, we hope to provide a programmable, specific, and effective means for translational gene regulation in S. cerevisae.

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2018-05

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Plasmid Design for Making a HEK293t Reporter Cell Line to Study Gene Expression Dynamics

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Cell fate is a complex and dynamic process with many genetic components. It has often been likened to “multistable” mathematical systems because of the numerous possible “stable” states, or cell types, that cells may end up in. Due

Cell fate is a complex and dynamic process with many genetic components. It has often been likened to “multistable” mathematical systems because of the numerous possible “stable” states, or cell types, that cells may end up in. Due to its complexity, understanding the process of cell fate and differentiation has proven challenging. A better understanding of cell differentiation has applications in regenerative stem cell therapies, disease pathologies, and gene regulatory networks.
A variety of different genes have been associated with cell fate. For example, the Nanog/Oct-4/Sox2 network forms the core interaction of a gene network that maintains stem cell pluripotency, and Oct-4 and Sox2 also play a role in the tissue types that stem cells eventually differentiate into. Using the CRISPR/cas9 based homology independent targeted integration (HITI) method developed by Suzuki et al., we can integrate fluorescent tags behind genes with reasonable efficiency via the non-homologous end joining (NHEJ) DNA repair pathway. With human embryonic kidney (HEK) 293T cells, which can be transfected with high efficiencies, we aim to create a three-parameter reporter cell line with fluorescent tags for three different genes related to cell fate. This cell line would provide several advantages for the study of cell fate, including the ability to quantitatively measure cell state, observe expression heterogeneity among a population of genetically identical cells, and easily monitor fluctuations in expression patterns.
The project is partially complete at this time. This report discusses progress thus far, as well as the challenges faced and the future steps for completing the reporter line.

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2019-05

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Using Natural Diversity of Quorum Sensing to Expand the Synthetic Biology Toolbox

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Currently in synthetic biology only the Las, Lux, and Rhl quorum sensing pathways have been adapted for broad engineering use. Quorum sensing allows a means of cell to cell communication in which a designated sender cell produces quorum sensing molecules

Currently in synthetic biology only the Las, Lux, and Rhl quorum sensing pathways have been adapted for broad engineering use. Quorum sensing allows a means of cell to cell communication in which a designated sender cell produces quorum sensing molecules that modify gene expression of a designated receiver cell. While useful, these three quorum sensing pathways exhibit a nontrivial level of crosstalk, hindering robust engineering and leading to unexpected effects in a given design. To address the lack of orthogonality among these three quorum sensing pathways, previous scientists have attempted to perform directed evolution on components of the quorum sensing pathway. While a powerful tool, directed evolution is limited by the subspace that is defined by the protein. For this reason, we take an evolutionary biology approach to identify new orthogonal quorum sensing networks and test these networks for cross-talk with currently-used networks. By charting characteristics of acyl homoserine lactone (AHL) molecules used across quorum sensing pathways in nature, we have identified favorable candidate pathways likely to display orthogonality. These include Aub, Bja, Bra, Cer, Esa, Las, Lux, Rhl, Rpa, and Sin, which we have begun constructing and testing. Our synthetic circuits express GFP in response to a quorum sensing molecule, allowing quantitative measurement of orthogonality between pairs. By determining orthogonal quorum sensing pairs, we hope to identify and adapt novel quorum sensing pathways for robust use in higher-order genetic circuits.

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2015-05

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RNA-Guided Modification of Synthetic Gene Networks Using CRISPR-Cas Systems

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The ability to edit chromosomal regions is an important tool for the study of gene function and the ability to engineer synthetic gene networks. CRISPR-Cas systems, a bacterial RNA-guided immune system against foreign nucleic acids, have recently been engineered for

The ability to edit chromosomal regions is an important tool for the study of gene function and the ability to engineer synthetic gene networks. CRISPR-Cas systems, a bacterial RNA-guided immune system against foreign nucleic acids, have recently been engineered for a plethora of genome engineering and transcriptional regulation applications. Here we employ engineered variants of CRISPR systems in proof-of-principle experiments demonstrating the ability of CRISPR-Cas derived single-DNA-strand cutting enzymes (nickases) to direct host-cell genomic recombination. E.coli is generally regarded as a poorly recombinogenic host with double-stranded DNA breaks being highly lethal. However, CRISPR-guided nickase systems can be easily programmed to make very precise, non-lethal, incisions in genomic regions directing both single reporter gene and larger-scale recombination events deleting up to 36 genes. Genome integrated repetitive elements of variable sizes can be employed as sites for CRISPR induced recombination. We project that single-stranded based editing methodologies can be employed alongside preexisting genome engineering techniques to assist and expedite metabolic engineering and minimalized genome research.

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2014-05

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Developing engineered polymerases for practical applications in synthetic biology

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Advances in chemical synthesis have enabled new lines of research with unnatural genetic polymers whose modified bases or sugar-phosphate backbones have potential therapeutic and biotechnological applications. Maximizing the potential of these synthetic genetic systems requires inventing new molecular biology tools

Advances in chemical synthesis have enabled new lines of research with unnatural genetic polymers whose modified bases or sugar-phosphate backbones have potential therapeutic and biotechnological applications. Maximizing the potential of these synthetic genetic systems requires inventing new molecular biology tools that can both generate and faithfully replicate unnatural polymers of significant length. Threose nucleic acid (TNA) has received significant attention as a complete replication system has been developed by engineering natural polymerases to broaden their substrate specificity. The system, however, suffers from a high mutational load reducing its utility. This thesis will cover the development of two new polymerases capable of transcribing and reverse transcribing TNA polymers with high efficiency and fidelity. The polymerases are identified using a new strategy wherein gain-of-function mutations are sampled in homologous protein architectures leading to subtle optimization of protein function. The new replication system has a fidelity that supports the propagation of genetic information enabling in vitro selection of functional TNA molecules. TNA aptamers to human alpha-thrombin are identified and demonstrated to have superior stability compared to DNA and RNA in biologically relevant conditions. This is the first demonstration that functional TNA molecules have potential in biotechnology and molecular medicine.

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Date Created
2015

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The synthetic biology of a man-made protein

Description

Synthetic biology is constantly evolving as new ideas are incorporated into this increasingly flexible field. It incorporates the engineering of life with standard genetic parts and methods; new organisms with new genomes; expansion of life to include new components, capabilities,

Synthetic biology is constantly evolving as new ideas are incorporated into this increasingly flexible field. It incorporates the engineering of life with standard genetic parts and methods; new organisms with new genomes; expansion of life to include new components, capabilities, and chemistries; and even completely synthetic organisms that mimic life while being composed of non-living matter. We have introduced a new paradigm of synthetic biology that melds the methods of in vitro evolution with the goals and philosophy of synthetic biology. The Family B proteins represent the first de novo evolved natively folded proteins to be developed with increasingly powerful tools of molecular evolution. These proteins are folded and functional, composed of the 20 canonical amino acids, and in many ways resemble natural proteins. However, their evolutionary history is quite different from natural proteins, as it did not involve a cellular environment. In this study, we examine the properties of DX, one of the Family B proteins that have been evolutionarily optimized for folding stability. Described in chapter 2 is an investigation into the primitive catalytic properties of DX, which seems to have evolved a serendipitous ATPase activity in addition to its selected ATP binding activity. In chapters 3 and 4 we express the DX gene in E. coli cells and observe massive changes in cell morphology, biochemistry, and life cycle. Exposure to DX activates several defense systems in E. coli, including filamentation, cytoplasmic segregation, and reversion to a viable but non-culturable state. We examined these phenotypes in detail and present a model that accounts for how DX causes such a rearrangement of the cell.

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2011

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Developing alternative genetic systems for structural DNA nanotechnology and Darwinian evolution

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A major goal of synthetic biology is to recapitulate emergent properties of life. Despite a significant body of work, a longstanding question that remains to be answered is how such a complex system arose? In this dissertation, synthetic nucleic acid

A major goal of synthetic biology is to recapitulate emergent properties of life. Despite a significant body of work, a longstanding question that remains to be answered is how such a complex system arose? In this dissertation, synthetic nucleic acid molecules with alternative sugar-phosphate backbones were investigated as potential ancestors of DNA and RNA. Threose nucleic acid (TNA) is capable of forming stable helical structures with complementary strands of itself and RNA. This provides a plausible mechanism for genetic information transfer between TNA and RNA. Therefore TNA has been proposed as a potential RNA progenitor. Using molecular evolution, functional sequences were isolated from a pool of random TNA molecules. This implicates a possible chemical framework capable of crosstalk between TNA and RNA. Further, this shows that heredity and evolution are not limited to the natural genetic system based on ribofuranosyl nucleic acids. Another alternative genetic system, glycerol nucleic acid (GNA) undergoes intrasystem pairing with superior thermalstability compared to that of DNA. Inspired by this property, I demonstrated a minimal nanostructure composed of both left- and right-handed mirro image GNA. This work suggested that GNA could be useful as promising orthogonal material in structural DNA nanotechnology.

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2011

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Development of an artificial genetic system capable of Darwinian evolution

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The principle of Darwinian evolution has been applied in the laboratory to nucleic acid molecules since 1990, and led to the emergence of in vitro evolution technique. The methodology of in vitro evolution surveys a large number of different molecules

The principle of Darwinian evolution has been applied in the laboratory to nucleic acid molecules since 1990, and led to the emergence of in vitro evolution technique. The methodology of in vitro evolution surveys a large number of different molecules simultaneously for a pre-defined chemical property, and enrich for molecules with the particular property. DNA and RNA sequences with versatile functions have been identified by in vitro selection experiments, but many basic questions remain to be answered about how these molecules achieve their functions. This dissertation first focuses on addressing a fundamental question regarding the molecular recognition properties of in vitro selected DNA sequences, namely whether negatively charged DNA sequences can be evolved to bind alkaline proteins with high specificity. We showed that DNA binders could be made, through carefully designed stringent in vitro selection, to discriminate different alkaline proteins. The focus of this dissertation is then shifted to in vitro evolution of an artificial genetic polymer called threose nucleic acid (TNA). TNA has been considered a potential RNA progenitor during early evolution of life on Earth. However, further experimental evidence to support TNA as a primordial genetic material is lacking. In this dissertation we demonstrated the capacity of TNA to form stable tertiary structure with specific ligand binding property, which suggests a possible role of TNA as a pre-RNA genetic polymer. Additionally, we discussed the challenges in in vitro evolution for TNA enzymes and developed the necessary methodology for future TNA enzyme evolution.

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2013

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Engineering cyanobacteria to convert carbon dioxide to building blocks for renewable plastics

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The production of monomer compounds for synthesizing plastics has to date been largely restricted to the petroleum-based chemical industry and sugar-based microbial fermentation, limiting its sustainability and economic feasibility. Cyanobacteria have, however, become attractive microbial factories to produce renewable fuels

The production of monomer compounds for synthesizing plastics has to date been largely restricted to the petroleum-based chemical industry and sugar-based microbial fermentation, limiting its sustainability and economic feasibility. Cyanobacteria have, however, become attractive microbial factories to produce renewable fuels and chemicals directly from sunlight and CO2. To explore the feasibility of photosynthetic production of (S)- and (R)-3-hydroxybutyrate (3HB), building-block monomers for synthesizing the biodegradable plastics polyhydroxyalkanoates and precursors to fine chemicals, synthetic metabolic pathways have been constructed, characterized and optimized in the cyanobacterium Synechocystis sp. PCC 6803 (hereafter Synechocystis 6803). Both types of 3HB molecules were produced and readily secreted from Synechocystis cells without over-expression of transporters. Additional inactivation of the competing PHB biosynthesis pathway further promoted the 3HB production. Analysis of the intracellular acetyl-CoA and anion concentrations in the culture media indicated that the phosphate consumption during the photoautotrophic growth and the concomitant elevated acetyl-CoA pool acted as a key driving force for 3HB biosynthesis in Synechocystis. Fine-tuning of the gene expression levels via strategies, including tuning gene copy numbers, promoter engineering and ribosome binding site optimization, proved critical to mitigating metabolic bottlenecks and thus improving the 3HB production. One of the engineered Synechocystis strains, namely R168, was able to produce (R)-3HB to a cumulative titer of ~1600 mg/L, with a peak daily productivity of ~200 mg/L, using light and CO2 as the sole energy and carbon sources, respectively. Additionally, in order to establish a high-efficiency transformation protocol in cyanobacterium Synechocystis 6803, methyltransferase-encoding genes were cloned and expressed to pre-methylate the exogenous DNA before Synechocystis transformation. Eventually, the transformation efficiency was increased by two orders of magnitude in Synechocystis. This research has demonstrated the use of cyanobacteria as cell factories to produce 3HB directly from light and CO2, and developed new synthetic biology tools for cyanobacteria.

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2014

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Biosynthetic production of aromatic fine chemicals

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This dissertation focuses on the biosynthetic production of aromatic fine chemicals in engineered Escherichia coli from renewable resources. The discussed metabolic pathways take advantage of key metabolites in the shikimic acid pathway, which is responsible for the production of the

This dissertation focuses on the biosynthetic production of aromatic fine chemicals in engineered Escherichia coli from renewable resources. The discussed metabolic pathways take advantage of key metabolites in the shikimic acid pathway, which is responsible for the production of the aromatic amino acids phenylalanine, tyrosine, and tryptophan. For the first time, the renewable production of benzaldehyde and benzyl alcohol has been achieved in recombinant E. coli with a maximum titer of 114 mg/L of benzyl alcohol. Further strain development to knockout endogenous alcohol dehydrogenase has reduced the in vivo degradation of benzaldehyde by 9-fold, representing an improved host for the future production of benzaldehyde as a sole product. In addition, a novel alternative pathway for the production of protocatechuate (PCA) and catechol from the endogenous metabolite chorismate is demonstrated. Titers for PCA and catechol were achieved at 454 mg/L and 630 mg/L, respectively. To explore potential routes for improved aromatic product yields, an in silico model using elementary mode analysis was developed. From the model, stoichiometric optimums maximizing both product-to-substrate and biomass-to-substrate yields were discovered in a co-fed model using glycerol and D-xylose as the carbon substrates for the biosynthetic production of catechol. Overall, the work presented in this dissertation highlights contributions to the field of metabolic engineering through novel pathway design for the biosynthesis of industrially relevant aromatic fine chemicals and the use of in silico modelling to identify novel approaches to increasing aromatic product yields.

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2016