When he isn’t splitting his time between classes, water polo and planning Hogwart’s styled theme parties Galen Gao, a junior at Caltech, makes time to conduct synthetic biology research and has just finished competing in the annual iGEM Jamboree.
Last summer, Galen got hands on experience in synthetic biology characterizing cyan fluorescent proteins and their expression in E. Coli. After learning the basics of cloning and integrating DNA pieces into E.Coli at a research lab at Caltech he decided to start an iGEM team and see how far it would go.
At Caltech, iGEM teams are completely designed and run by the undergraduate students. Students may go to an instructor and propose a project idea and the instructor will decide if he/she would like to sponsor the team. However the team is responsible for acquiring funds and writing proposals to different student organizations to cover the travel and research costs.
Galen rounded up Facebook friends interested in joining the competition and after many brainstorm sessions decided to try and design a regulatory system in E. Coli analogous to hormonal regulatory systems. A theoretical application would be gene therapy for people with diabetes to stabilize their blood glucose levels. Subsequently, the team wrote up proposals to different university organizations and acquired adequate funding for their project.
Galen’s team wanted to implement foreign bacterial quorum sensing (QS) systems, a system bacteria use to regulate gene expression, into E. Coli to design cell to cell signaling in a similar manner beta cells signal cells in the body to uptake glucose and covert it to glycogen. However the team quickly realized that there was not a lot of previous research on how to implement non-native QS systems into E. Coli. The focus of the project shifted towards testing which QS systems could be implemented into E. coli.
Although Galen and his team weren’t able to focus on the models they had originally wanted to design, they worked on developing techniques to help laydown a foundation for future synthetic biology research. A lot of synthetic biology research has focused on intracellular reactions, which are reactions that occur within the cell. Galen and his team wanted to help provide more tools for biologists designing systems with intercellular reactions, reactions that occur between different cells. According to Galen,
“You see a lot of artificial genetic circuits constructed within a single cell where different compounds within the cell will activate and repress each other but you don’t see a lot of that happening between different cells. Our ability to be able to implement these other quorum sensing systems as avenues for regulation from one cell to another cell opens up more possibilities in synthetic biology.”
Galen and his team built their new circuit to occur between two cells and split up the components of the quorum sensing system. One cell created a peptide signaling ligand that would activate a second cell to become fluorescent. The team tested three different quorum-sensing systems in E. Coli. Two of the QS systems could not be effectively implemented into E. Coli however the team obtained promising preliminary results on the third QS system. They were able to show that the components were properly expressed in the E. Coli cells but due to the length of the project were not able to produce conclusive findings.
One of the missions of iGEM is to help spread awareness of synthetic biology. Galen and his team were able to teach the synthetic biology community at the iGEM Jamboree that there is much more work to be conducted on designing systems between different cells.
In the immediate future Galen hopes to get more research experience by working in a lab and shadowing a physician this summer. Undecided about whether or not he wants to go to graduate or medical school, Galen hopes to be working in academic medicine as an MD/PhD where he will be able split time between developing drugs and helping patients.
To learn more about the team’s project check out their wiki!
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