College Launches Synthetic Biology Center

in NEWS, Students

Top-Tier Faculty to Advance High-Impact Field

BU's synthetic biology dream team (from left): Assistant Professor Ahmad "Mo" Khalil (BME), the center's associate director; Professor James J. Collins (BME, MSE, SE), who directs the center; Assistant Professor Douglas Densmore (ECE, BME, Bioinformatics); and Assistant Professor Wilson Wong (BME) (Photo by Kalman Zabarsky)

Synthetic biology brings together engineers, biologists and other life science researchers to conceive, design and build molecular biological systems that rewire and reprogram organisms to perform specified tasks. The field promises not only to yield new insights into biology but also to spark new technologies that could revolutionize healthcare, energy and the environment, food production, materials and global security. Recognizing the wide-ranging potential of synthetic biology and the trailblazing efforts of many of its faculty, the College of Engineering has launched the BU Center of Synthetic Biology (CoSBi) to advance this emerging discipline.

Poised to take a nationally preeminent role in advancing synthetic biology research, CoSBi unites core engineering faculty members that bridge diverse research interests, including microbial and metabolic engineering, immuno-engineering, cell reprogramming, computer-aided design and automation, single-cell analyses and systems modeling. In addition, the center involves leading researchers across the university with expertise in systems biology, leveraging their ability to reverse-engineer natural biological networks to help in the modeling, design and forward-engineering of synthetic biological networks with novel functions.

“We envision that CoSBI will serve as a focal point for activities in synthetic biology at Boston University and the larger Boston area, and help to advance the field toward applications in biomedical research, healthcare and other areas,” said Professor James J. Collins (BME, MSE, SE), one of the pioneers of synthetic biology, who directs the center.

CoSBi is located at 36 Cummington Mall, taking advantage of the newly renovated wet and dry facilities on the second floor and computational space on the third floor. Core faculty include Collins; Assistant Professor Ahmad “Mo” Khalil (BME), the center’s associate director; Assistant Professor Douglas Densmore (ECE, BME, Bioinformatics); and Assistant Professor Wilson Wong (BME), with 11 associate faculty members drawn from the College of Engineering, College of Arts & Sciences, and School of Medicine.

To advance its research agenda, CoSBi is expected to attract substantial government funding, major industrial collaborators and top-notch graduate students and postdoctoral fellows. The center will develop and support large-scale, collaborative projects, organize an annual symposium on synthetic biology featuring prominent researchers from around the world, and host a regular seminar series showcasing research leaders in the field.

To enable students of all levels to learn about the fundamentals and practice of synthetic biology and explore their interests in the intersection of engineering and molecular biology, the center will play an active role in supporting research training, education and outreach activities. Center administrators aim to appoint new research faculty and staff; develop new fellowships for and facilitate mentoring of graduate students and postdoctoral associates; design new courses and produce educational videos; run international synthetic biology competition teams and summer workshops; and build community for undergraduate, graduate and postdoctoral students studying synthetic biology.

“Synthetic biology is reshaping the discipline of biology, and attracting students and researchers with a diverse set of backgrounds,” said Khalil. “A central goal of CoSBi will be to prepare the next generation of synthetic biologists for this multidisciplinary type of research at an early stage, and to challenge them to think conceptually and creatively about how engineering can help in understanding life.”

-Mark Dwortzan