Bioengineer Discuses ‘Closing the Design Gap’

Bioengineer Christina D. Smolke presented her research on developing genetically encoded technologies that would advance cell-based therapies for diseases like cancer, brain tumors, and leukemia, at the Neekeyfar Lecture on Science and Mathematics on Thursday.

Hosted by the Student Advisory Board for Science and the FAS Division of Science, the Neekeyfar Lecture Series invites preeminent scientists and mathematicians at the cutting edge of research to speak in an effort to encourage undergraduate interest in the sciences.

Looking at the field of synthetic biology, “the distinctions between science fiction and nonfiction are blurred,” said Mark A. Martinez ’14 during the introduction to the event. “[It] stretches the boundaries of what seems to be possible.”

Smolke, an Associate Professor in the Bioengineering Department at Stanford, emphasized synthetic biology’s potential to harness natural capabilities as a manufacturing platform and manipulate them for human purposes, which would minimize the gap between fabrication and design capabilities.

“The development of foundational molecular tools is a really critical area for biotechnology, and it’s something that synthetic biology is trying to address,” Smolke said. “These tools are really important in being able to scale the complexity of systems that we can engineer, study, manipulate, and probe and also in the efficiency and robustness with which we can do it.”

In her work, Smolke drew an analogy to the 1966 science fiction film, Fantastic Voyage, in which the scientists are shrunk down to an atomic level and use zap guns to remove a blood clot. “While shrink ray technology has not caught on, intelligent therapies do move through the body, localize to the size of disease, and treat the disease in a specific and effective way,” Smolke said.

Smolke said that in the same way that the Mars Rover has a system of sensors, actuators, and circuitry, a cell is capable of information processing, computation, and control functions.

Although its current application is limited, Smolke said that synthetic biology could be used to produce larger quantities of morphine than are currently available through poppy flowers, which naturally produce the drug at an extremely low rate.

While organic synthesis is not measurably better than purifying the product from the natural host, synthetic biology can transfer the pathway for the production of the chemical compound into yeast by replicating the DNA that determines the pathway, grow the yeast, and then analyze the yeast’s product. This strategy could then be used to create this product in significantly higher quantities.

After the lecture, Libby S. Felts ’14 said that the lecture provided the opportunity to learn about a specialized topic that students do not typically explore.

“The point of the Neekeyfar is to help foster the interdisciplinary nature of science to get people collaborating in all the science departments instead of just specializing in one,” said Felts.