James J. Collins is an engineer at heart. But the system he's chosen to work on is more complex to rebuild than any piece of electronics he's tinkered with. Collins, an HHMI investigator at Boston University, studies living cells. His research gets at the crux of how cells function. The implications are huge but far in the future.
HHMI: WHAT IS SYNTHETIC BIOLOGY?
JJC: Synthetic biology is a new field that's bringing together engineers and biologists to create novel circuits that control cell behavior. Whereas some engineers put together electronic components to build systems such as radios, we are using biologic parts—DNA, RNA, and proteins—to rewire the insides of cells. We'd like to reprogram organisms to address challenges in medicine, energy, and the environment. For example, we could reprogram bacteria to create a fuel that we need or reprogram cells in our bodies to ward off disease.
HHMI: HOW CLOSE ARE THESE IDEAS TO REALITY?
JJC: Many of these practical applications are far off and quite complicated. For now, we are taking smaller steps, creating small genetic networks both to learn how cells normally work and to endow cells with novel decision-making capabilities.
HHMI: DO YOU NEED TO BE TRAINED AS A BIOLOGIST TO RUN A SYNTHETIC BIOLOGY LAB?
JJC: We're mostly doing wet work just like other biologists—cloning bits of DNA into cells, testing how the cells behave, looking at expression profiles. Our work takes a broad spectrum of backgrounds and expertise. In my lab are biologists, chemists, physicists, bioinformaticists, and engineers organized in teams so that people working together have complementary knowledge.
HHMI: AND YOUR BACKGROUND?
JJC: I started out in physics and moved into medical engineering. My dad and uncle were engineers, and my mom was a mathematics teacher, so I was brought up to think like an engineer. In the 70s I saw all these fascinating technologies being developed for the space program and the military and I thought it would be really cool if we could apply these to help restore function to the disabled. I had two grandfathers who were disabled—one lost his vision when I was seven and the other had a series of strokes—and that inspired me to want to make a difference in medicine and biomedical technology.
HHMI: WHAT MISUNDERSTANDINGS EXIST ABOUT YOUR FIELD?
JJC: You have this notion of Franken-microbes, or this idea that engineers are running amok in biology labs trying to create life from scratch. Some scientists within the field propagate these kinds of rumors. I think much of what you read in the popular media about synthetic biology is far beyond what is going on in the labs.
Photo: Leah Fasten