With $25 million in federal funds, researchers at five Bay Area campuses are aiming to transform the cells of plants and animals into biological factories that could produce new drugs, new fuels and even new biological computers.
A new bioengineering center is being led by scientists at UCSF in a consortium that includes specialists at Stanford, UC Berkeley, San Francisco State and the artificial intelligence lab at the IBM-Almaden research center in San Jose.
Using versions of the new science called synthetic biology, specialists will focus on a variety of efforts to engineer living cells into new biological systems, according to a UCSF announcement.
•One goal is to create what the scientists have called a Cellular Machine Shop to produce ultrafast new machines for gene sequencing to create new cells with valuable new structures and properties.
•Another goal will be to develop new engineering software for computer aided design, known as CAD, to design entirely new types of cells and assemblies of cells.
•Another project will be aimed at altering the internal structures of cells and combining them with the structures of other very different cell types.
The results could lead to major new drugs and new carbon-neutral fuels in a changing climate, said Wallace Marshall, a UCSF professor of biochemistry and biophysics and director of the new consortium project called the Center for Biological Construction.
“The cell is a chemical factory,” Marshall said. “When engineers build a factory, they design its physical structure. Until now, most efforts by biologists to engineer cells have ignored their structure. We want to change that, and learn how to control the physical structure of cells and their internal compartments so they can play the role of the reactors and pipes in a chemical factory.”
While the new center and its leaders are located at Mission Bay, the consortium’s researchers and their labs will continue working on their own campuses, Marshall said.
“The tight geographic focus of our center is a strength since it helps us all to work together more easily,” he said.
UCSF biologists Wendell Lim and Zev Gartner will co-direct the new center.
Scientists trained in cell biology will work with physicists, engineers, mathematicians and computer scientists; experimentalists will collaborate with computer modelers and theoreticians; and university researchers will work with their counterparts in commercial companies, UCSF said.
“If we could engineer biology like we currently engineer cars or factories, the implications would be limitless,” Gartner said.
The grant from the National Science Foundation also calls for the center to train new scientists in cell engineering and increase the diversity of minorities in the field. Eight faculty members and seven graduate students at San Francisco State will work on the project, and undergraduates will join summer research internships, said biology professor Frank Bayless.
At the IBM-Almaden center, Simone Bianco, a physicist who works with the center’s Watson supercomputer to model evolutionary biology, said he plans to develop cells as sensors that could detect complex environments and human diseases.
“In a sense we are using cells to give Watson microscopic eyes so we can better understand cellular behavior in different conditions,” Bianco said.
Source: The San Francisco Chronicle [Read More]