Collins Delivers 64th University Lecture

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James Collins delivers the 2008 University Lecture
James Collins delivers the 2008 University Lecture

Professor James J. Collins kept a crowd of more than 500 entertained during last Tuesday’s University Lecture as he skimmed the surface of his 18 years of biomedical engineering research at BU, touching on important landmarks in sensory function, synthetic biology and systems biology.

The University Lecture has been a tradition at Boston University since 1950 to honor members of the faculty engaged in outstanding research. The event gives community members, colleagues, faculty, staff and students an opportunity to hear from an accomplished researcher. Collins’ lecture, the 64th in the series, was titled “Biology by Design.”

“The beauty of the University Lecture is that all of us come together to learn, be inspired and open our eyes to a wider world,” said Provost David Campbell in his opening remarks.

BU President Robert Brown introduced Collins, listing some of his major research accomplishments and awards as well as his recently recognized prowess as a “southpaw” when he threw the first pitch at an Aug. 29 Red Sox game.

Collins skillfully guided the audience through his research in three distinct fields: using noise to enhance sensory function, engineering genes with synthetic biology and using systems biology to stem bacterial antibiotic resistance. He described research in understandable and often humorous, terms, glossing over mathematical equations and computer models, and focusing on the intriguing applications of his work, even invoking a hypothetical skateboard-riding senior citizen “Mrs. McGillicuddy” to help illustrate how enhancing sensory function can improve balance.

Collins’ research in sensory function originated with the field of climate modeling. Climate scientists’ counterintuitive idea of adding noise to data actually helped them find patterns in the occurrence of ice ages, and, seeing this, Collins tried to apply the same concept to a medical problem. He found that human sensory neurons became more sensitive to weaker signals with a little bit of background vibration. The research resulted in the invention of a vibrating insole that helps improve the function of sensory nerves.

“Add noise, and we can detect previously undetectable signals,” he said. “We found we could take 75 year old Mrs. McGillicuddy and make her balance as well as a 20 year old undergraduate.”

The vibrating insoles, in development at a medical device company, will help senior citizens prevent falls, diabetics with neuropathy avoid amputation, and stroke victims’ rehabilitate.

Collins next described his foray into synthetic biology, a field that he said asks, “Why not take molecular components  – genes and proteins – and think about putting them together as an electrical engineer would?”

As an early pioneer in synthetic biology, Collins invented a genetic toggle switch that turns a gene on or off. Many biologists had thought this electrical circuit approach to a biological system impossible when Collins first proposed the idea, he said. Today, the toggle switch is becoming an incresingly important tool to scientists.

Applications for such programmable engineered bacteria abound. Collins described their potential as biosensors to detect environmental toxins or land mines. They can also fight biofilms – extremely tenacious thin layers of bacteria that contaminate surfaces in hospitals, factories or homes. A bacteria-attacking virus can deliver engineered DNA intended to be “a very bad house guest,” said Collins – destroying the bacteria that make up a biofilm.

“It’s like college students – they eat all your resources, make copies of themselves and explode your house,” he said of the bacteria-destroying DNA.

Collins also discussed his lab’s recent work in systems biology, a field that looks at the big picture of all the interactions and signals within a cell, mapping a giant web of connections.

“We can use these networks to find out what targets drugs are hitting — are they hitting what they’re designed to hit? And what else are they hitting?” he said.

Collins’ laboratory applies this type of research to the study of antibiotic resistance. They recently found a previously undiscovered pathway in bacteria, triggered by antibiotics, that is harmful to the bugs. This finding might help make new antibiotics and make existing ones more effective.

Collins concluded with thanks to the College for “creating and sustaining an interdisciplinary environment that’s really celebrated,” and gave a little advice to the many young science and engineering students in the audience.

“Most days, most weeks, your experiments don’t work and your good ideas turn out to be wrong.  So be sure to have a great group of friends, or you’ll be miserable and cranky.”

Audience members enjoyed the humor Collins injected throughout the lecture and appreciated the understandable, yet detailed, level at which he discussed his research.

“I like how he connected it to electrical engineering and other types of engineering,” said Yesha Mohan (BME’12), “and he incorporated the funny stuff really well.”

Iain Bernhoft, a PhD candidate in English, said “He did a fantastic job of articulating the concepts and ideas in a clear and accessible way.”