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New Center for Synthetic Biology Launches

Center will solidify Northwestern’s leadership in the field

Northwestern University is solidifying its place in the exciting field of synthetic biology. 

Launching today, the new Center for Synthetic Biology will make Northwestern one of the top destinations in the field for research and education in the country.

Milan Mrksich“This Center will rapidly raise our leadership profile in the field,” said Milan Mrksich, director of the center. “It will create a community where the best faculty, students, and postdoctoral fellows find an intellectual home with partners from diverse backgrounds, a suite of technologies that allow research to be performed at the highest level, and a vibrant program for visitors from both within and outside Northwestern. This will create an ecosystem for synthetic biology that is second to none.”

Synthetic biology uses tools and concepts from physics, engineering, and computer science to build new biological systems. Much of this research focuses on reprogramming cells by changing their DNA to take on new, specialized purposes, such as creating sustainable chemicals, next generation materials, or targeted therapies.

The Center for Synthetic Biology is led by Mrksich, Henry Wade Rogers Professor of biomedical engineering, chemistry, and cell and molecular biology, and co-director Michael Jewett, associate professor of chemical and biological engineering. 

Michael Jewett“The Center will focus on research that lies at the intersection of science and technology, creating opportunities for technology transfer, clinical translation, and commercialization,” said Jewett. “Our educational priorities will help create a tightknit community that further enhances this field.” 

The Center’s advisory board includes three internationally renowned scientists and engineers: Frances Arnold, the Dick and Barbara Dickinson Professor of Chemical Engineering, Bioengineering, and Biochemistry at the California Institute of Technology; James J. Collins, the Termeer Professor of Bioengineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; and Wendell Lim, professor of cellular and molecular pharmacology at the University of California at San Francisco. 

“This new Center will help us attract some of the best minds and researchers as we continue to grow in this field,” said Julio M. Ottino, dean of Northwestern’s McCormick School of Engineering. “With a strong core in chemical and biological engineering and connections to many other disciplines, our faculty have already established themselves as an emerging area of strength.”

“Centers play an important catalytic role at Northwestern, providing an infrastructure for faculty to collaborate across disciplines,” said Jay Walsh, vice president for research at Northwestern. “Northwestern remains committed to investing in research that has far-reaching implications in fields like healthcare and sustainability. Our research in synthetic biology will continue to search for and develop new solutions to the world’s most pressing problems.” 

In addition to Center leadership, faculty members Neda Bagheri, Joshua Leonard, and Keith Tyo have already put Northwestern on the map as a national leader in this growing area of study. 

Tyo, for example, has received three Gates Foundation grants, one of which is a collaboration with Leonard to engineer yeast-based biosensors to serve as cost-effective, easily deployed diagnostics for patients in developing countries. An expert in computational biology, Bagheri develops algorithms that uncover the dynamic communication blueprints of cellular systems.

Jewett, who has been honored with the David and Lucile Packard Fellowship for Science and Engineering and the Camille Dreyfus Teacher-Scholar Award for his efforts in synthetic biology, has made powerful contributions to the field, including efforts to repurpose ribosomes for manufacturing novel materials and therapeutics. Mrksich boosted the field by developing a technology that radically accelerates the measurement of biochemical reactions, increasing the production, purification, and characterization of proteins at a thousand-fold scale greater than what is now common.  

Recognizing the importance of understanding the ethical implications of emerging technologies, the Center also includes member Laurie Zoloth, professor bioethics and medical humanities in the Feinberg School of Medicine and professor of religious studies in the Weinberg College of Arts & Sciences.

Another sign of the growing interest in synthetic biology comes from the undergraduates. The International Genetically Engineered Machine competition, or iGEM, now attracts more than 200 teams of students worldwide, including a Northwestern team co-mentored by Leonard, Jewett, and Tyo. Northwestern’s iGEM team received top honors in 2012 by developing an E. coli-based biosensor that could help detect the presence of a pathogen in hospital settings.

The Center will continue to support the iGEM teams, providing a home for these motivated undergraduates and with consultation from leading faculty. Further, the Center will have strong ties with the INVO, Northwestern’s Innovations and New Ventures Office, as many of the projects will offer new opportunities for commercialization. 

“We have grown in an organic, patchwork way,” Mrksich said. “Our students know each other, but they don’t recognize the entirety of the community. The Center will solidify their experience, so that we can all come together and attack the real challenges in the field.”