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Synthetic Biology Expands Beyond Bacteria

Synthetic biology is getting a boost. So far, most researchers have designed their synthetic circuits using transcription factors found in bacteria. However, these don’t always translate well to nonbacterial cells and can be a challenge to scale. Now, researchers have come up with a new method to design transcription factors for nonbacterial cells—specifically yeast. Their initial library of 19 new transcription factors should help overcome the existing bottleneck that has limited synthetic biology applications, says Timothy Lu, M.D., assistant professor of electrical engineering and computer science and a member of MIT’s Research Laboratory of Electronics.

The project is part of a larger, ongoing effort to develop genetic “parts” that can be assembled into circuits to achieve specific functions. Through this endeavor, Dr. Lu and his colleagues hope to make it easier to develop circuits that do exactly what a researcher wants.

“If you look at a parts registry, a lot of these parts come from a hodgepodge of different organisms. You put them together into your organism of choice and hope that it works,” says Dr. Lu.

Recent advances in designing proteins that bind to DNA gave the researchers the boost they needed to start building a new library of transcription factors. In many transcription factors, the DNA-binding section consists of zinc finger proteins, which target different DNA sequences depending on their structure. The researchers based their new zinc finger designs on the structure of a naturally occurring zinc finger protein. “By modifying specific amino acids within that zinc finger, you can get them to bind with new target sequences,” Dr. Lu says.
 
 

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