Engineered biological systems have been used to manipulate information, construct materials, process chemicals, produce energy, provide food, and help maintain or enhance human health and our environment. Unfortunately, our ability to quickly and reliably engineer biological systems that behave as expected remains quite limited. Foundational technologies that make routine the engineering of biology are needed. Vibrant, open research communities and strategic leadership are necessary to ensure that the development and application of biological technologies remains overwhelmingly constructive.
An inability to reliably predict quantitative behaviors for novel combinations of genetic elements limits the rational engineering of biological systems. We developed an expression cassette architecture for genetic elements controlling transcription and translation initiation in Escherichia coli: transcription elements encode a common mRNA start, and translation elements use an overlapping genetic motif found in many natural systems. We engineered libraries of constitutive and repressor-regulated promoters along with translation initiation elements following these definitions. We measured activity distributions for each library and selected elements that collectively resulted in expression across a 1,000-fold observed dynamic range. We studied all combinations of curated elements, demonstrating that arbitrary genes are reliably expressed to within twofold relative target expression windows with ∼93% reliability. We expect the genetic element definitions validated here can be collectively expanded to create collections of public-domain standard biological parts that support reliable forward engineering of gene expression at genome scales.
The ability to quickly and reliably engineer many-component systems from libraries of standard interchangeable parts is one hallmark of modern technologies. Whether the apparent complexity of living systems will permit biological engineers to develop similar capabilities is a pressing research question. We propose to adapt existing frameworks for describing engineered devices to biological objects in order to (i) direct the refinement and use of biological 'parts' and 'devices', (ii) support research on enabling reliable composition of standard biological parts and (iii) facilitate the development of abstraction hierarchies that simplify biological engineering. We use the resulting framework to describe one engineered biological device, a genetically encoded cell-cell communication receiver named BBa_F2620. The description of the receiver is summarized via a 'datasheet' similar to those widely used in engineering. The process of refinement and characterization leading to the BBa_F2620 datasheet may serve as a starting template for producing many standardized genetically encoded objects.
Background: The underlying goal of synthetic biology is to make the process of engineering biological systems easier. Recent work has focused on defining and developing standard biological parts. The technical standard that has gained the most traction in the synthetic biology community is the BioBrick standard for physical composition of genetic parts. Parts that conform to the BioBrick assembly standard are BioBrick standard biological parts. To date, over 2,000 BioBrick parts have been contributed to, and are available from, the Registry of Standard Biological Parts.
Here we studied the quantitative behaviour and cell-to-cell variability of a prototypical eukaryotic cell-fate decision system, the mating pheromone response pathway in yeast. We dissected and measured sources of variation in system output, analysing thousands of individual, genetically identical cells. Only a small proportion of total cell-to-cell variation is caused by random fluctuations in gene transcription and translation during the response ('expression noise'). Instead, variation is dominated by differences in the capacity of individual cells to transmit signals through the pathway ('pathway capacity') and to express proteins from genes ('expression capacity'). Cells with high expression capacity express proteins at a higher rate and increase in volume more rapidly. Our results identify two mechanisms that regulate cell-to-cell variation in pathway capacity. First, the MAP kinase Fus3 suppresses variation at high pheromone levels, while the MAP kinase Kss1 enhances variation at low pheromone levels. Second, pathway capacity and expression capacity are negatively correlated, suggesting a compensatory mechanism that allows cells to respond more precisely to pheromone in the presence of a large variation in expression capacity.
BackgroundThe engineering of many-component, synthetic biological systems is being made easier by the development of collections of reusable, standard biological parts. However, the complexity of biology makes it difficult to predict the extent to which such efforts will succeed. As a first practical example, the Registry of Standard Biological Parts started at MIT now maintains and distributes thousands of BioBrick™ standard biological parts. However, BioBrick parts are only standardized in terms of how individual parts are physically assembled into multi-component systems, and most parts remain uncharacterized. Standardized tools, techniques, and units of measurement are needed to facilitate the characterization and reuse of parts by independent researchers across many laboratories.ResultsWe found that the absolute activity of BioBrick promoters varies across experimental conditions and measurement instruments. We choose one promoter (BBa_J23101) to serve as an in vivo reference standard for promoter activity. We demonstrated that, by measuring the activity of promoters relative to BBa_J23101, we could reduce variation in reported promoter activity due to differences in test conditions and measurement instruments by ~50%. We defined a Relative Promoter Unit (RPU) in order to report promoter characterization data in compatible units and developed a measurement kit so that researchers might more easily adopt RPU as a standard unit for reporting promoter activity. We distributed a set of test promoters to multiple labs and found good agreement in the reported relative activities of promoters so measured. We also characterized the relative activities of a reference collection of BioBrick promoters in order to further support adoption of RPU-based measurement standards.ConclusionRelative activity measurements based on an in vivoreference standard enables improved measurement of promoter activity given variation in measurement conditions and instruments. These improvements are sufficient to begin to support the measurement of promoter activities across many laboratories. Additional in vivo reference standards for other types of biological functions would seem likely to have similar utility, and could thus improve research on the design, production, and reuse of standard biological parts.
Organisms must process information encoded via developmental and environmental signals to survive and reproduce. Researchers have also engineered synthetic genetic logic to realize simpler, independent control of biological processes. We developed a three-terminal device architecture, termed the transcriptor, that uses bacteriophage serine integrases to control the flow of RNA polymerase along DNA. Integrase-mediated inversion or deletion of DNA encoding transcription terminators or a promoter modulates transcription rates. We realized permanent amplifying AND, NAND, OR, XOR, NOR, and XNOR gates actuated across common control signal ranges and sequential logic supporting autonomous cell-cell communication of DNA encoding distinct logic-gate states. The single-layer digital logic architecture developed here enables engineering of amplifying logic gates to control transcription rates within and across diverse organisms.
The inability to predict heterologous gene expression levels precisely hinders our ability to engineer biological systems. Using well-characterized regulatory elements offers a potential solution only if such elements behave predictably when combined. We synthesized 12,563 combinations of common promoters and ribosome binding sites and simultaneously measured DNA, RNA, and protein levels from the entire library. Using a simple model, we found that RNA and protein expression were within twofold of expected levels 80% and 64% of the time, respectively. The large dataset allowed quantitation of global effects, such as translation rate on mRNA stability and mRNA secondary structure on translation rate. However, the worst 5% of constructs deviated from prediction by 13-fold on average, which could hinder large-scale genetic engineering projects. The ease and scale this of approach indicates that rather than relying on prediction or standardization, we can screen synthetic libraries for desired behavior.next-generation sequencing | synthetic biology | systems biology O rganisms can be engineered to produce chemical, material, fuel, and medical products that are often superior to nonbiological alternatives (1). Biotechnologists have sought to discover, improve, and industrialize such products through the use of recombinant DNA technologies (2, 3). In recent years, these efforts have increased in complexity from expressing a few genes at once to optimizing multicomponent circuits and pathways (4-7). To attain desired systems-level function reliably, careful and time-consuming optimization of individual components is required (8-11).To mitigate this slow trial-and-error optimization, two dominant approaches have taken hold. The first approach seeks to predict expression levels by elucidating the biophysical relationships between sequence and function. For example, several groups have modified promoters (12, 13) and ribosome binding sites (RBSs) (14-16) to see how small sequence changes affect transcription or translation. Such studies are fundamentally challenging due to the vastness of sequence space. In addition, because these approaches mostly look at either transcription or translation individually, they are rarely able to investigate interactions between these processes.The second approach uses combinations of individually characterized elements to attain desired expression without directly considering their DNA sequences (17-25). Current efforts have focused on approaches to limit the number of time-consuming steps required to characterize potential interactions and on identifying existing or engineered elements that act predictably when used in combination (26-28). However, these studies still suggest there are enough idiosyncratic interactions and context effects that it will be necessary to construct and measure many variants of a circuit to achieve desired function (29). For larger circuits, such approaches are necessarily limited in scope due to the difficulty in measuring large numbers of combinations (26, 27...
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