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Identification of aromatic-inducible promoters and heterologous biosensors as tuning elements for styrene production in E. coli

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One of the primary bottlenecks to chemical production in biological organisms is the toxicity of the chemical. Overexpression of efflux pumps has been shown to increase tolerance to aromatic compounds such as styrene and styrene oxide. Tight control of pum

One of the primary bottlenecks to chemical production in biological organisms is the toxicity of the chemical. Overexpression of efflux pumps has been shown to increase tolerance to aromatic compounds such as styrene and styrene oxide. Tight control of pump expression is necessary to maximize titers and prevent excessive strain on the cells. This study aimed to identify aromatic-sensitive native promoters and heterologous biosensors for construction of closed-loop control of efflux pump expression in E. coli. Using a promoter library constructed by Zaslaver et al., activation was measured through GFP output. Promoters were evaluated for their sensitivity to the addition of one of four aromatic compounds, their "leaking" of signal, and their induction threshold. Out of 43 targeted promoters, 4 promoters (cmr, mdtG, yahN, yajR) for styrene oxide, 2 promoters (mdtG, yahN) for styrene, 0 promoters for 2-phenylethanol, and 1 promoter for phenol (pheP) were identified as ideal control elements in aromatic bioproduction. In addition, a series of three biosensors (NahR, XylS, DmpR) known to be inducible by other aromatics were screened against styrene oxide, 2-phenylethanol, and phenol. The targeted application of these biosensors is aromatic-induced activation of linked efflux pumps. All three biosensors responded strongly in the presence of styrene oxide and 2-phenylethanol, with minor activation in the presence of phenol. Bioproduction of aromatics continues to gain traction in the biotechnology industry, and the continued discovery of aromatic-inducible elements will be essential to effective pathway control.

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2018-05

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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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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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2015

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The synthetic biology of a man-made protein

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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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Date Created
2011

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Engineering a Co-Culture of Bacteria and Yeast for the Production of Renewable p-Coumaric Acid

Description

p-Coumaric acid is used in the food, pharmaceutical, and cosmetic industries due to its versatile properties. While prevalent in nature, harvesting the compound from natural sources is inefficient, requiring large quantities of producing crops and numerous extraction and purification steps.

p-Coumaric acid is used in the food, pharmaceutical, and cosmetic industries due to its versatile properties. While prevalent in nature, harvesting the compound from natural sources is inefficient, requiring large quantities of producing crops and numerous extraction and purification steps. Thus, the large-scale production of the compound is both difficult and costly. This research aims to produce p-coumarate directly from renewable and sustainable glucose using a co-culture of Yeast and E. Coli. Methods used in this study include: designing optimal media for mixed-species microbial growth, genetically engineering both strains to build the production pathway with maximum yield, and analyzing the presence of p-Coumarate and its pathway intermediates using High Performance Liquid Chromatography (HPLC). To date, the results of this project include successful integration of C4H activity into the yeast strain BY4741 ∆FDC1, yielding a strain that completely consumed trans-cinnamate (initial concentration of 50 mg/L) and produced ~56 mg/L p-coumarate, a resting cell assay of the co-culture that produced 0.23 mM p-coumarate from an initial L-Phenylalanine concentration of 1.14 mM, and toxicity tests that confirmed the toxicity of trans-cinnamate to yeast for concentrations above ~50 mg/L. The hope for this project is to create a feasible method for producing p-Coumarate sustainably.

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2016-12

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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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Date Created
2013

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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

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Expanding applications of portable biological systems: enhancements to mammalian gene editing and bacterial quorum sensing networks

Description

The portability of genetic tools from one organism to another is a cornerstone of synthetic biology. The shared biological language of DNA-to-RNA-to-protein allows for expression of polypeptide chains in phylogenetically distant organisms with little modification. The tools and contexts are

The portability of genetic tools from one organism to another is a cornerstone of synthetic biology. The shared biological language of DNA-to-RNA-to-protein allows for expression of polypeptide chains in phylogenetically distant organisms with little modification. The tools and contexts are diverse, ranging from catalytic RNAs in cell-free systems to bacterial proteins expressed in human cell lines, yet they exhibit an organizing principle: that genes and proteins may be treated as modular units that can be moved from their native organism to a novel one. However, protein behavior is always unpredictable; drop-in functionality is not guaranteed.

My work characterizes how two different classes of tools behave in new contexts and explores methods to improve their functionality: 1. CRISPR/Cas9 in human cells and 2. quorum sensing networks in Escherichia coli.

1. The genome-editing tool CRISPR/Cas9 has facilitated easily targeted, effective, high throughput genome editing. However, Cas9 is a bacterially derived protein and its behavior in the complex microenvironment of the eukaryotic nucleus is not well understood. Using transgenic human cell lines, I found that gene-silencing heterochromatin impacts Cas9’s ability to bind and cut DNA in a site-specific manner and I investigated ways to improve CRISPR/Cas9 function in heterochromatin.

2. Bacteria use quorum sensing to monitor population density and regulate group behaviors such as virulence, motility, and biofilm formation. Homoserine lactone (HSL) quorum sensing networks are of particular interest to synthetic biologists because they can function as “wires” to connect multiple genetic circuits. However, only four of these networks have been widely implemented in engineered systems. I selected ten quorum sensing networks based on their HSL production profiles and confirmed their functionality in E. coli, significantly expanding the quorum sensing toolset available to synthetic biologists.

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Date Created
2017

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Synthesis of Biological and Mathematical Methods for Gene Network Control

Description

Synthetic biology is an emerging field which melds genetics, molecular biology, network theory, and mathematical systems to understand, build, and predict gene network behavior. As an engineering discipline, developing a mathematical understanding of the genetic circuits being studied is of

Synthetic biology is an emerging field which melds genetics, molecular biology, network theory, and mathematical systems to understand, build, and predict gene network behavior. As an engineering discipline, developing a mathematical understanding of the genetic circuits being studied is of fundamental importance. In this dissertation, mathematical concepts for understanding, predicting, and controlling gene transcriptional networks are presented and applied to two synthetic gene network contexts. First, this engineering approach is used to improve the function of the guide ribonucleic acid (gRNA)-targeted, dCas9-regulated transcriptional cascades through analysis and targeted modification of the RNA transcript. In so doing, a fluorescent guide RNA (fgRNA) is developed to more clearly observe gRNA dynamics and aid design. It is shown that through careful optimization, RNA Polymerase II (Pol II) driven gRNA transcripts can be strong enough to exhibit measurable cascading behavior, previously only shown in RNA Polymerase III (Pol III) circuits. Second, inherent gene expression noise is used to achieve precise fractional differentiation of a population. Mathematical methods are employed to predict and understand the observed behavior, and metrics for analyzing and quantifying similar differentiation kinetics are presented. Through careful mathematical analysis and simulation, coupled with experimental data, two methods for achieving ratio control are presented, with the optimal schema for any application being dependent on the noisiness of the system under study. Together, these studies push the boundaries of gene network control, with potential applications in stem cell differentiation, therapeutics, and bio-production.

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2018