A U.S. Army Research Laboratory biotechnology scientist recently published an editorial article on the future directions of synthetic biology research to meet critical Army needs in the Synthetic Biology edition of the Journal of the American Chemical Society.
In the publication, Dr. Bryn Adams, who works in ARL’s Bio-Technology Branch, highlights examples of robust, tractable bacterial species that can meet the demands of tomorrow’s state-of-the-art in synthetic biology.
“ACS Synthetic Biology is the premier synthetic biology journal in the world, with a wide readership of biologists, chemists, physicists, engineers and computer programmers,” Adams said. “A publication in this journal allows me to challenge the leaders in the field to meet a Department of Defense specific need — the need for new synthetic biology chassis organisms, or host cell, and toolkits to build complex circuits in them.”
Adams believes that synthetic biology can bridge critical technological gaps for the Army and DOD, and will encourage scientists in academia and industry, as well as other military laboratories, to work to break down the barriers to fieldable synthetic biology that will move us closer to autonomous biohybrid devices that give unprecedented capabilities to the Army and to the Soldier.
“Synthetic biology has been identified by the Department of Defense as a ‘substantially important’ area because it has major impacts in a variety of fields, including material synthesis, sensing and human performance,” Adams said.
According to Adams, the emergence of synthetic biology in the last 15 years has revolutionized scientists’ ability to rationally engineer genetic circuitry in living organisms.
“Large, complex circuits can be designed using computer programming approaches, and combined with DNA synthesis technologies, sophisticated novel functions can now be performed by cells,” Adams said.
Adams stated the outcome is the ability to produce unprecedented biological capabilities.
“For the first time, we can engineer microbes by delivering rationally designed, precisely regulated, highly complex, multi-gene pathways to program autonomous biological systems for an unlimited number of potential functions,” Adams said.
Adams’s focus as part of ARL’s Biomaterials Team is to incorporate the genetic circuitry that allows microbes to be wholly integrated into biohybrid or cybernetic systems, where the organism’s function is a critical component of the system.
“Living organisms have a unique set of capabilities as they can reproduce, repair and heal themselves, and can sense, respond and adapt to their environment,” Adams said. “These are processes that are controlled at the genetic level and are harnessed through synthetic biology. Integrating these types of engineered cells into devices enables autonomous biohybrid systems to be developed with unparalleled capabilities.”
The potential systems that could be developed include synthetic photosynthetic genetic circuits, which could be introduced into the bacteria integrated into electronic devices to power them.
Other robust bacteria could be genetically engineered with biological tasting or smelling capabilities that interface with the electronics to form an advanced biosensor.
Custom consortia, or mixed-cell populations, could be tailored to produce biochemicals on demand under field conditions, as a probiotic to protect Soldiers from infection, or genetically tuned to form smart, living paints.
According to Adams, in order to move synthetic biology to the field, where it will benefit the Soldier, scientists need to use a host organism, or chassis, that can survive and thrive under field conditions.
Synthetic biology has been largely built upon E. coli, and complex genetic systems continue to be engineered in this bacterium. However, E. coli is highly adapted to laboratory conditions and is no longer a suitable synthetic biology host for the field.
“The caveat is that engineered genetic circuits developed in E. coli cannot simply be ported into a new host bacterium, even one that is closely related to E. coli, and be functional,” Adams said. “ARL’s role is to design functional, DOD-relevant genetic systems and develop methods to introduce the synthetic systems into fieldable organisms.”
This is a huge barrier in moving synthetic biology from the laboratory to the field, and Adams is currently transitioning in a novel broad spectrum DNA transfer system developed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Adams will utilize this system to introduce sense-respond-self-destruct genetic circuits into fieldable bacterial species.
Speaking of MIT, earlier this year along with seven other ARL awardees, Adams won a Laboratory University Collaboration Initiative, or LUCI, award, which has enabled her to work with Professor Chris Voigt at MIT on “Bacteria systems for sensing and responding functions.”
Each researcher selected for the LUCI program will receive $600,000 over a three-year period to conduct their basic research projects.
“LUCI has definitely enhanced my research in synthetic biology,” Adams said. “It has strengthened both ARL and my own ties to one of the pioneers in synthetic biology, Dr. Chris Voigt, as well as his postdoctoral research fellows and graduate students at MIT. It has also connected me with fellow synthetic biology LUCI winner, Dr. Sarah Glaven at the Naval Research Laboratory, as we both work toward advancing synthetic biology in the DOD labs.”
Through her collaboration with the Voigt lab, Adams has been able to transition technology to ARL that allows her to begin developing the next generation of Army-relevant synthetic biology chassis.
“I have gained both new technical expertise and knowledge in engineering new chassis bacteria that will aid me in developing ARL as an emerging leader in fieldable synthetic biology,” Adams said.