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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

Description

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

Description

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

Description

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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Controlled Epigenetic Silencing and Tandem Histone-Binding Transcriptional Activation

Description

Fusion proteins that specifically interact with biochemical marks on chromosomes represent a new class of synthetic transcriptional regulators that decode cell state information rather than deoxyribose nucleic acid (DNA) sequences. In multicellular organisms, information relevant to cell state, tissue identity,

Fusion proteins that specifically interact with biochemical marks on chromosomes represent a new class of synthetic transcriptional regulators that decode cell state information rather than deoxyribose nucleic acid (DNA) sequences. In multicellular organisms, information relevant to cell state, tissue identity, and oncogenesis is often encoded as biochemical modifications of histones, which are bound to DNA in eukaryotic nuclei and regulate gene expression states. In 2011, Haynes et al. showed that a synthetic regulator called the Polycomb chromatin Transcription Factor (PcTF), a fusion protein that binds methylated histones, reactivated an artificially-silenced luciferase reporter gene. These synthetic transcription activators are derived from the polycomb repressive complex (PRC) and associate with the epigenetic silencing mark H3K27me3 to reactivate the expression of silenced genes. It is demonstrated here that the duration of epigenetic silencing does not perturb reactivation via PcTF fusion proteins. After 96 hours PcTF shows the strongest reactivation activity. A variant called Pc2TF, which has roughly double the affinity for H3K27me3 in vitro, reactivated the silenced luciferase gene by at least 2-fold in living cells.

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2019

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Spatial Temporal Patterning and Dynamics of E. Coli Growth with Nutrient Variation

Description

Synthetic biology (SB) has become an important field of science focusing on designing and engineering new biological parts and systems, or re-designing existing biological systems for useful purposes. The dramatic growth of SB throughout the past two decades has not

Synthetic biology (SB) has become an important field of science focusing on designing and engineering new biological parts and systems, or re-designing existing biological systems for useful purposes. The dramatic growth of SB throughout the past two decades has not only provided us numerous achievements, but also brought us more timely and underexplored problems. In SB's entire history, mathematical modeling has always been an indispensable approach to predict the experimental outcomes, improve experimental design and obtain mechanism-understanding of the biological systems. \textit{Escherichia coli} (\textit{E. coli}) is one of the most important experimental platforms, its growth dynamics is the major research objective in this dissertation. Chapter 2 employs a reaction-diffusion model to predict the \textit{E. coli} colony growth on a semi-solid agar plate under multiple controls. In that chapter, a density-dependent diffusion model with non-monotonic growth to capture the colony's non-linear growth profile is introduced. Findings of the new model to experimental data are compared and contrasted with those from other proposed models. In addition, the cross-sectional profile of the colony are computed and compared with experimental data. \textit{E. coli} colony is also used to perform spatial patterns driven by designed gene circuits. In Chapter 3, a gene circuit (MINPAC) and its corresponding pattern formation results are presented. Specifically, a series of partial differential equation (PDE) models are developed to describe the pattern formation driven by the MINPAC circuit. Model simulations of the patterns based on different experimental conditions and numerical analysis of the models to obtain a deeper understanding of the mechanisms are performed and discussed. Mathematical analysis of the simplified models, including traveling wave analysis and local stability analysis, is also presented and used to explore the control strategies of the pattern formation. The interaction between the gene circuit and the host \textit{E. coli} may be crucial and even greatly affect the experimental outcomes. Chapter 4 focuses on the growth feedback between the circuit and the host cell under different nutrient conditions. Two ordinary differential equation (ODE) models are developed to describe such feedback with nutrient variation. Preliminary results on data fitting using both two models and the model dynamical analysis are included.

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2021

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Development of CRISPR-RNA guided recombinases for genome engineering

Description

Recombinases are powerful tools for genome engineering and synthetic biology, however recombinases are limited by a lack of user-programmability and often require complex directed-evolution experiments to retarget specificity. Conversely, CRISPR systems have extreme versatility yet can induce off-target mutations and

Recombinases are powerful tools for genome engineering and synthetic biology, however recombinases are limited by a lack of user-programmability and often require complex directed-evolution experiments to retarget specificity. Conversely, CRISPR systems have extreme versatility yet can induce off-target mutations and karyotypic destabilization. To address these constraints we developed an RNA-guided recombinase protein by fusing a hyperactive mutant resolvase from transposon TN3 to catalytically inactive Cas9. We validated recombinase-Cas9 (rCas9) function in model eukaryote Saccharomyces cerevisiae using a chromosomally integrated fluorescent reporter. Moreover, we demonstrated cooperative targeting by CRISPR RNAs at spacings of 22 or 40bps is necessary for directing recombination. Using PCR and Sanger sequencing, we confirmed rCas9 targets DNA recombination. With further development we envision rCas9 becoming useful in the development of RNA-programmed genetic circuitry as well as high-specificity genome engineering.

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Date Created
2018

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Construction of gene circuits to control cell behavior

Description

Synthetic biology is a novel method that reengineers functional parts of natural genes of interest to build new biomolecular devices able to express as designed. There is increasing interest in synthetic biology due to wide potential applications in various fields

Synthetic biology is a novel method that reengineers functional parts of natural genes of interest to build new biomolecular devices able to express as designed. There is increasing interest in synthetic biology due to wide potential applications in various fields such as clinics and fuel production. However, there are still many challenges in synthetic biology. For example, many natural biological processes are poorly understood, and these could be more thoroughly studied through model synthetic gene networks. Additionally, since synthetic biology applications may have numerous design constraints, more inducer systems should be developed to satisfy different requirements for genetic design.

This thesis covers two topics. First, I attempt to generate stochastic resonance (SR) in a biological system. Synthetic bistable systems were chosen because the inducer range in which they exhibit bistability can satisfy one of the three requirements of SR: a weak periodic force is unable to make the transition between states happen. I synthesized several different bistable systems, including toggle switches and self-activators, to select systems matching another requirement: the system has a clear threshold between the two energy states. Their bistability was verified and characterized. At the same time, I attempted to figure out the third requirement for SR – an effective noise serving as the stochastic force – through one of the most widespread toggles, the mutual inhibition toggle, in both yeast and E. coli. A mathematic model for SR was written and adjusted.

Secondly, I began work on designing a new genetic system capable of responding to pulsed magnetic fields. The operators responding to pulsed magnetic stimuli in the rpoH promoter were extracted and reorganized. Different versions of the rpoH promoter were generated and tested, and their varying responsiveness to magnetic fields was recorded. In order to improve efficiency and produce better operators, a directed evolution method was applied with the help of a CRISPR-dCas9 nicking system. The best performing promoters thus far show a five-fold difference in gene expression between trials with and without the magnetic field.

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Date Created
2016

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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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Date Created
2018