Monday, 05 February 2018 21:44

Protein research using unnatural amino acids and development of a synthetic biology curriculum

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Research:

My research employs a synthetic biology technique that can site-specifically encode unnatural amino acids into proteins (see Young, TS and Schultz, PG. 2010. J. Biol. Chem. 285 (15). pp 11039-44). While my specific research targets histone proteins (using crosslinkers), the system can be applied to any protein of interest (using whichever of the 100+ different unnatural amino acids make sense). I would like to collaborate on a research project that would benefit from this technology, regardless of the protein of interest. Protein targets that are encoded with an unnatural amino acid can be studied in vivo or be expressed recombinantly and isolated for solution studies (ideal for enzymatic, structural an­­­d binding assays).

Additionally, I would be interested in developing new unnatural amino acids and expanding the synthetic biology molecular tool box. If there is a novel chemistry of interest that can be synthesized as an amino acid I would like to pursue the directed evolution of the enzymes in this system to specifically recognize and install these new amino acids.

 

Teaching:

    I am interested in developing a highly interdisciplinary course(s) focused in Synthetic Biology. The aim is to dissolve some of the barriers that tend to isolate the classic scientific majors within narrowly defined parameters. My intentions are to blend topics in chemistry, biology, math and engineering to create a set of comprehensive courses that meld the disciplines into a single identity. This initiative is mutually beneficial for both Manhattan College students as well as any institution that would be interested in a collaborative online course. However, this effort would work best as a summer semester on location at either institute. The courses being developed are meant to familiarize students with interdisciplinary topics that are not typically introduced until graduate level study.

   The drive for such an initiative stems from the fact that at most schools (particularly in the U.S.) the biology and chemistry departments are guilty of manoeuvring students through a traditional set of courses that are compartmentalized as either chemistry or biology related. The two “parent” subjects only appear to overlap significantly within biochemistry courses, and even then, the topics remain within a very classical definition of the field. Moreover, the typical science education curriculum includes mathematical courses that often lose their relative connection to the students’ focused discipline. In an era where such an extraordinary emphasis is being placed on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics programs (STEM) it is puzzlingly why there are so few courses that truly tie the four disciplines together. In fact, the National Research Council (NRC) released a report calling for a renovation of the biological teaching curriculum stating a need for a greater integration of physical sciences, mathematics, and interdisciplinary laboratory experiences.

            Synthetic biology is a branch of science that unites the components of the STEM acronym into a cohesive unit. This field uses engineering and mathematical modeling to design ways in which to genetically manipulate biological systems in order to alter, or create de novo, unique physiological pathways. Cellular biochemistry can be redesigned and “tuned” for highly specific outputs, essentially treating cellular stimuli, genes and promoters as circuit timers, gates and switches. Remarkably, nearly 20 years after the first synthetic biology research was published, it still remains missing from teaching curriculums at most undergraduate institutes.

     The scope of synthetic biology at Manhattan College would be developed to include new courses that emphasize the history, evolution and ingenuity of the field. Initial courses will be designed to help students discover the complex, yet intriguing possibilities of biological pathway restructuring. A laboratory portion of the course would allow for students to explore these systems first hand with exposure to bacterial photography systems, cells that grow to smell like bananas, and the ability to produce color changes in cellular systems (Biobuilder; biobuilder.org). These exercises provide multilayered STEM applications and add an immediate “wow” factor to the students learning experience. The broader impact of these courses will illustrate to students that teams of scientists with diverse skill sets are often required to achieve large project goals.

   Innovations in biotechnology are far outpacing the textbooks so it is difficult to merge exciting new discoveries and technologies into lectures alongside classical biochemistry topics. This course would be aimed at helping span that gap as a supplement to classical biology and biochemistry classes.

Read 857 times Last modified on Monday, 08 October 2018 11:43
Bryan Wilkins

Assistant Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry at Manhattan College. 

 

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