Lu on Syn Bio

MIT researcher and Scientist to Watch Timothy Lu talks about the value of cross-disciplinary approaches in bringing synthetic biology into the clinic.

By | May 1, 2016

Timothy Lu discusses several relevant examples where we have created effective and highly specific antimicrobial agents, identified novel pathways for resensitizing highly drug-resistant bacteria to antibiotic therapy, and invented rapid analytic procedures for detecting microbial pathogens.


Timothy Lu: My name is Timothy Lu. I'm an associate professor at MIT and an associate member of the Broad Institute. My lab and I are interested in working in the field of synthetic biology.

Synthetic biology's an emerging engineering discipline. It's really focused on bringing more powerful techniques for quicker and more accurate engineering and biological systems.

And what's really allowed this field to take off over the last decade or so has been the influx of people who come from pretty nontraditional backgrounds, people like physicists, engineers, nonbiological scientists who are interested in understanding biology and manipulating it.

And on the other hand, there's been a technological advancement in our ability to read and write DNA. And that's given us kind of the raw tools that we need for understanding a biological system and then reprograming it for new functions.

So, there are several examples where synthetic biology has started to make real impacts on human diseases. So, one of the key examples is in the area of diagnostics.

For example, as a Ph.D. student, I engineered these particles known as bacteriophages, which essentially are bacterial viruses that recognize bacterial cells. And what we've done is to turn those bacteriophages into microscopic detectors of the presence of bacteria. That allows us essentially to recognize the presence of pathogens in a variety of different settings, including in food or in clinical settings much more rapidly than we could previously.

Another example of how synthetic biology can help our understanding of human diseases is through technologies such as gene editing. So, by being able to insert and manipulate the human genetic code, we can create variants of genes and test how those variants link into disease conditions.

There are a variety of projects that we work on that are actually quite intimately related to human disease. So, one example of that is we're quite interested in understanding the human microbiome, which is the collection of bacteria that lives inside of us. And the current techniques for understanding such systems are largely observational. And what we've been doing is to engineer living microbes that can actually go into the gut and into other microbiomes and actually live there and sense and respond to those local environments. And by doing so, we can map out some of the interesting functional properties of the microbiome and how it relates to human health.

The Broad has been an excellent place for us to apply synthetic biology to human diseases. It's a great amalgamation of scientists, engineers, and clinical folks. And that allows us really to take some very basic concepts, rapidly translate that into experiments, and then apply that to applications to human diseases.

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