Synthetic Biology of Cellular Systems

Emergent Behaviors of Integrated Cellular Systems Center at Illinois

Neurons will serve as sensors in the biological machine, but they will also need to be able to control the muscle cells to pump chemicals through vessels. Image of neurons by Larry Millet and Janet Sinn-Hanlon, Visualization Laboratory of the Imaging Technology Group.

While the behaviors of individual cells and the functions and properties of tissues and organs have been studied extensively, the complex interactions of cell clusters are not as well understood. School of Molecular & Cellular Biology (MCB) researchers are members of a team that will investigate the behaviors of interacting clusters of cells with different functionalities.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) awarded $25 million to establish the Emergent Behaviors of Integrated Cellular Systems (EBICS) Center at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the Georgia Institute of Technology. The EBICS Center is one of five Science & Technology Centers (STC) approved by NSF in a nationwide competition.

The goal is to create biological modules — sensors, processors and actuators — that can be used to build working biological machines. This next step in synthetic biology will build upon the complexity and richness of biology — from regenerative medicine to developmental biology­ — to engineer new applications.

University researchers from many different disciplines, including biology, engineering, and physical sciences, will contribute to the development of the knowledge, tools, and technologies necessary to create these highly sophisticated biological machines.

The list of participants includes three MCB faculty.

Professor of Cell and Developmental Biology Fei Wang will develop new technologies to induce efficient differentiation of embryonic stem cells into neurons, myocytes, and endothelial cells. Production of the differentiated cells is a critical first step towards the establishment of interactions of cell clusters and the creation of cellular machines. The Wang lab already developed conditions for efficient neural conversion from human embryonic stem cells to neural progenitors, and will continue to derive fully differentiated neurons. The Wang lab will also collaborate with other members of the STC to generate large-scale functional myocytes and endothelial cells from embryonic stem cells.

Affiliate Professor of Molecular and Integrative Physiology YingXiao (Peter) Wang, will develop genetically encoded reporters based on fluorescent resonance energy transfer to visualize and quantify signaling transduction in live cells with high tempo-spatial resolution. These tools will be specifically designed and applied to monitor the intracellular molecular activities when cells interact with their neighbors and with the surrounding mechanical/physical/chemical environment. The results should provide spatio-temporal maps of molecular activities and hierarchies governing the cell-cell and cell-environment interactions.

Alumni Professor of Cell and Developmental Biology Martha Gillette, co-director of research for the project, will study clusters of neurons with genetically engineered properties that control clusters of myocyte and endothelial cells in micro-environments.

The Center aims to advance research in complex biological systems, create new educational programs based on this research, and demonstrate leadership in its involvement of groups traditionally underrepresented in biology, physical science, and engineering.

LAS News

October 28, 2010 All News