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  • Research team receives NSF award to develop ‘smart’ synthetic cell systems

    September 24, 2019

    An interdisciplinary research team led by MolES faculty member James Carothers, Dan Evans Career Development Associate Professor of Chemical Engineering, received a new $1 million research grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to investigate whether cells can learn.

    This project emerged from an NSF Ideas Lab on “Building Synthetic Cells,” an intensive workshop designed to spur innovative and original solutions to grand challenges by bringing together researchers with diverse scientific backgrounds.

    Carothers, a synthetic biologist, teamed up with collaborators who have expertise in chemistry, bioethics, and computer science to develop a synthetic cell system capable of associative learning, in which a response becomes paired with a particular stimulus.

    The most famous example of associative learning comes from Ivan Pavlov’s experiments in which dogs were conditioned to drool—a response previously associated with food—upon hearing the sound of a bell. By pairing food with the sound of a bell, Pavlov caused a previously neutral stimulus (bell) to elicit a response similar to the one elicited by the biologically potent stimulus (food).  

    The team will explore whether cells, or cell-like systems, are capable of engaging in this type of learning paradigm. They aim to develop a synthetic cell that learns to respond (express Green Fluorescent Protein) to a light pulse signal (bell) by associating it with the addition of molecules (food) detected by olfactory receptors.

    Ultimately, researchers hope to show that genetically encoded information-processing systems can carry out learning tasks, and use this as a basis to generate a reusable library of learning circuit motifs.

    This research grant is part of the NSF’s initial $36 million investment to uncover the rules governing life on earth, including how cells assemble and function, in order to be able to predict how an organism will look and behave. The ability to manufacture synthetic cells constructed from biological or artificial materials to mimic functions of natural, living cells, could potentially impact the production of biofuels, non-silicon-based computer chips, and pharmaceuticals among other unforeseen applications.

    This work is being done in collaboration with Pamela Peralta-Yahya at Georgia Institute of Technology, Matthew Lakin at the University of New Mexico, Emma Frow at Arizona State University and Irene Chen at the University of California, Santa Barbara.