Grand Challenge Applications
The ability to program cells offers many opportunities to improve human health. Stem cells can be programmed to self-organize and differentiate to form tissues and organs. Viruses and bacteria can be used as novel antibiotics by developing “seek-and-destroy” programs. Similarly, the sensing and computing capabilities of bacteria can be used to convert them into drug delivery devices that are able to identify diseased cells and specific regions of the body in order to deliver targeted therapies. A relatively untouched area of therapeutic potential is the human microbiome; in other words, the bacteria that engage in symbiotic relationships with your body. Engineering colonizing bacteria offers a new route for the delivery of vaccines and therapeutics and the treatment of disease.
From wood to silk, we still obtain many materials from natural sources. In harvesting these materials, we rely on global abundances or the ability to be farmed. Enzyme-directed bio-mineralization can produce nanoparticles with unique structural and functional properties that are difficult to obtain by chemical routes. These have applications in a broad range of technologies, including electronics, photonics, MEMS, catalysis, and energy production and storage.
Microbial chemical factories provide a renewable pathway to pharmaceuticals, specialty, and commodity chemicals. A large part of constructing a pathway to a desired chemical is assembling the correct enzymes that function together to convert a metabolite into a desired chemical. Aiding the process of discovery are the DNA sequence databases that now contain more than a hundred million genes from over two hundred thousand organisms. Bioinformatics and DNA synthesis enable the identification and access of these functions. In the future, it may be possible to specify a desired chemical structure and then computationally identify those enzymes that will collectively produce the target chemical.
Biological sensing and circuitry enables agricultural organisms to see and respond to their environment. “Smart” plants could be programmed to identify and respond to multiple threats, such as pathogens, toxins, desiccation, and nutrient availability. Microbes in the rhizome associate with plants and could be engineered to implement similar functions. Finally, the engineering of new chasses that use sunlight to fix carbon dioxide, such as cyanobacteria and algae, could yield low cost routes to renewable carbon-neutral chemicals and fuels as well as meeting global nutritional needs.