Using Biology for Chemistry’s Sake
Kristala L. Jones Prather, Dept. of Chemical Engineering, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Synthetic Biology has rapidly emerged as a field that encompasses practitioners from many different disciplines, especially the many branches of engineering. An indication of its current position as a still evolving field is the lack of a single definition that can be agreed upon by those who fall under its umbrella. However, nearly all agree that synthetic biology seeks to integrate engineering concepts into biological research and development. Put simply, the goal of synthetic biology is to make biology easier to engineer, yet fundamental advancements in science are still needed. Research projects range from generalized tool development to specific applications, with the latter encompassing biological systems from microbes to mammals.

My research is centered in the applications space, utilizing microbes (mainly bacteria) as the core biological system. My work is motivated by a need for the development of sustainable alternatives for fuels and chemical production, and like the field of synthetic biology itself, is dependent on advances in several over-lapping scientific/engineering fields. The potential for biological conversion of feedstocks to chemicals is enhanced by the availability of tools and techniques from the established discipline of metabolic engineering. We can also gain insights from biocatalysis, since biological production of chemicals requires the identification of enzymes (i.e., proteins that catalyze chemical reactions) capable of producing the compounds of interest. Additionally, new tools being developed under the umbrella of synthetic biology facilitate the re-engineering of biological systems. My talk will outline our “retro-biosynthetic design” approach for biological pathways, and discuss the challenges that must be overcome in order to fully realize the potential of using biology for chemistry’s sake.

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