Movement of molecules across membranes in response to a stimulus is a key component of cellular programming. Here, we characterize and manipulate the response of a protein-based piston capable of puncturing membranes in a pH-dependent manner. Our protein actuator consists of modified R bodies found in a bacterial endosymbiont of paramecium. We express and purify R bodies from in E. coli; these pistons undergo multiple rounds of rapid extension and retraction. We developed a high throughput screen for mutants with altered pH sensitivity for tuning of the extension process. We show that the R bodies are capable of acting as synthetic pH-dependent pistons that can puncture E. coli membranes to release the trapped content. As such, these protein machines present a novel way to selectively rupture membrane compartments and will be important for programming cellular compartmentalization.
Synthetic biology uses living cells as molecular foundries for the biosynthesis of drugs, therapeutic proteins, and other commodities. However, the need for specialized equipment and refrigeration for production and distribution poses a challenge for the delivery of these technologies to the field and to low-resource areas. Here, we present a portable platform that provides the means for on-site, on-demand manufacturing of therapeutics and biomolecules. This flexible system is based on reaction pellets composed of freeze-dried, cell-free transcription and translation machinery, which can be easily hydrated and utilized for biosynthesis through the addition of DNA encoding the desired output. We demonstrate this approach with the manufacture and functional validation of antimicrobial peptides and vaccines and present combinatorial methods for the production of antibody conjugates and small molecules. This synthetic biology platform resolves important practical limitations in the production and distribution of therapeutics and molecular tools, both to the developed and developing world.
It has long been the dream of biologists to map gene expression at the single-cell level. With such data one might track heterogeneous cell sub-populations, and infer regulatory relationships between genes and pathways. Recently, RNA sequencing has achieved single-cell resolution. What is limiting is an effective way to routinely isolate and process large numbers of individual cells for quantitative in-depth sequencing. We have developed a high-throughput droplet-microfluidic approach for barcoding the RNA from thousands of individual cells for subsequent analysis by next-generation sequencing. The method shows a surprisingly low noise profile and is readily adaptable to other sequencing-based assays. We analyzed mouse embryonic stem cells, revealing in detail the population structure and the heterogeneous onset of differentiation after leukemia inhibitory factor (LIF) withdrawal. The reproducibility of these high-throughput single-cell data allowed us to deconstruct cell populations and infer gene expression relationships.
The breadth of genomic diversity found among organisms in nature allows populations to adapt to diverse environments1, 2. However, genomic diversity is difficult to generate in the laboratory and new phenotypes do not easily arise on practical timescales3. Although in vitro and directed evolution methods4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 have created genetic variants with usefully altered phenotypes, these methods are limited to laborious and serial manipulation of single genes and are not used for parallel and continuous directed evolution of gene networks or genomes. Here, we describe multiplex automated genome engineering (MAGE) for large-scale programming and evolution of cells. MAGE simultaneously targets many locations on the chromosome for modification in a single cell or across a population of cells, thus producing combinatorial genomic diversity. Because the process is cyclical and scalable, we constructed prototype devices that automate the MAGE technology to facilitate rapid and continuous generation of a diverse set of genetic changes (mismatches, insertions, deletions). We applied MAGE to optimize the 1-deoxy-d-xylulose-5-phosphate (DXP) biosynthesis pathway in Escherichia coli to overproduce the industrially important isoprenoid lycopene. Twenty-four genetic components in the DXP pathway were modified simultaneously using a complex pool of synthetic DNA, creating over 4.3 billion combinatorial genomic variants per day. We isolated variants with more than fivefold increase in lycopene production within 3 days, a significant improvement over existing metabolic engineering techniques. Our multiplex approach embraces engineering in the context of evolution by expediting the design and evolution of organisms with new and improved properties.
A key aspect of bacterial survival is the ability to evolve while migrating across spatially varying environmental challenges. Laboratory experiments, however, often study evolution in well-mixed systems. Here, we introduce an experimental device, the microbial evolution and growth arena (MEGA)–plate, in which bacteria spread and evolved on a large antibiotic landscape (120 × 60 centimeters) that allowed visual observation of mutation and selection in a migrating bacterial front. While resistance increased consistently, multiple coexisting lineages diversified both phenotypically and genotypically. Analyzing mutants at and behind the propagating front, we found that evolution is not always led by the most resistant mutants; highly resistant mutants may be trapped behind more sensitive lineages. The MEGA-plate provides a versatile platform for studying microbial adaption and directly visualizing evolutionary dynamics.
Robust gene circuit construction requires use of promoters exhibiting low crosstalk. Orthogonal promoters have been engineered utilizing an assortment of natural and synthetic transcription factors, but design of large orthogonal promoter-repressor sets is complicated, labor-intensive, and often results in unanticipated crosstalk. The specificity and ease of targeting the RNA-guided DNA-binding protein dCas9 to any 20 bp user-defined DNA sequence makes it a promising candidate for orthogonal promoter regulation. Here, we rapidly construct orthogonal variants of the classic T7-lac promoter using site-directed mutagenesis, generating a panel of inducible hybrid promoters regulated by both LacI and dCas9. Remarkably, orthogonality is mediated by only two to three nucleotide mismatches in a narrow window of the RNA:DNA hybrid, neighboring the protospacer adjacent motif. We demonstrate that, contrary to many reports, one PAM-proximal mismatch is insufficient to abolish dCas9-mediated repression, and we show for the first time that mismatch tolerance is a function of target copy number. Finally, these promoters were incorporated into the branched violacein biosynthetic pathway as dCas9- dependent switches capable of throttling and selectively redirecting carbon flux in Escherichia coli. We anticipate this strategy is relevant for any promoter and will be adopted formany applications at the interface of synthetic biology and metabolic engineering.
Morphogenetic engineering is an emerging field that explores the design and implementation of self-organized patterns, morphologies, and architectures in systems composed of multiple agents such as cells and swarm robots. Synthetic biology, on the other hand, aims to develop tools and formalisms that increase reproducibility, tractability, and efficiency in the engineering of biological systems. We seek to apply synthetic biology approaches to the engineering of morphologies in multicellular systems. Here, we describe the engineering of two mechanisms, symmetry-breaking and domain-specific cell regulation, as elementary functions for the prototyping of morphogenetic instructions in bacterial colonies. The former represents an artificial patterning mechanism based on plasmid segregation while the latter plays the role of artificial cell differentiation by spatial colocalization of ubiquitous and segregated components. This separation of patterning from actuation facilitates the design-build-test-improve engineering cycle. We created computational modules for CellModeller representing these basic functions and used it to guide the design process and explore the design space in silico. We applied these tools to encode spatially structured functions such as metabolic complementation, RNAPT7 gene expression, and CRISPRi/Cas9 regulation. Finally, as a proof of concept, we used CRISPRi/ Cas technology to regulate cell growth by controlling methionine synthesis. These mechanisms start from single cells enabling the study of morphogenetic principles and the engineering of novel population scale structures from the bottom up.
Small regulatory RNAs (sRNAs) regulate gene expression in bacteria. We designed synthetic sRNAs to identify and modulate the expression of target genes for metabolic engineering in Escherichia coli. Using synthetic sRNAs for the combinatorial knockdown of four candidate genes in 14 different strains, we isolated an engineered E. coli strain (tyrR- and csrA-repressed S17-1) capable of producing 2 g per liter of tyrosine. Using a library of 130 synthetic sRNAs, we also identified chromosomal gene targets that enabled substantial increases in cadaverine production. Repression of murE led to a 55% increase in cadaverine production compared to the reported engineered strain (XQ56 harboring the plasmid p15CadA)1. The design principles and the engineering strategy using synthetic sRNAs reported here are generalizable to other bacteria and applicable in developing superior producer strains. The ability to fine-tune target genes with designed sRNAs provides substantial advantages over gene-knockout strategies and other large-scale target identification strategies owing to its easy implementation, ability to modulate chromosomal gene expression without modifying those genes and because it does not require construction of strain libraries.
We describe a new device concept for digital microfluidics, based on an active matrix electrowetting on dielectric (AM-EWOD) device. A conventional EWOD device is limited by the number of electrical connections that can be made practically, which restricts the number and type of droplet operations. In an AM-EWOD, the patterned electrodes of a conventional EWOD device are replaced by a thin film transistor (TFT) array, as found in a liquid crystal display (LCD), facilitating independent control of each electrode. The arrays can have many thousand individually addressable electrodes, are fully reconfigurable and can be programmed to support multiple simultaneous operations. Each element is 210 μm × 210 μm in size and contains a circuit that measures the electrical impedance of the liquid above it. This is used to determine the presence and size of a droplet, a method that can improve assay reliability and accuracy. This sensor provides feedback, error detection and closed loop control of an assay sequence. We describe the design, fabrication and testing of a 64 × 64 format AM-EWOD device with impedance sensor functionality. A colorimetric assay is implemented on the device and used to measure glucose in human blood serum. Results are compared with the same assay performed on a microtitre plate.
By recoding bacterial genomes, it is possible to create organisms that can potentially synthesize products not commonly found in nature. By systematic replacement of seven codons with synonymous alternatives for all protein-coding genes, Ostrov et al. recoded the Escherichia coli genome. The number of codons in the E. coli genetic code was reduced from 64 to 57 by removing instances of the UAG stop codon and excising two arginine codons, two leucine codons, and two serine codons. Over 90% functionality was successfully retained. In 10 cases, reconstructed bacteria were not viable, but these few failures offered interesting insights into genome-design challenges and what is needed for a viable genome.