Genome Engineering and the Construction of New Genetic Codes

Thursday, November 17, 2011 - 7:00pm
Peter Carr

Our capacity to engineer genetic material is moving beyond the level of single genes to the scale of genomes. Still, our ability to paint effectively on a canvas as large as a genome is minute, dwarfed by our growing ability to synthesize DNA, which is in turn dwarfed by our ability to sequence. Current attempts to engineer at this scale are first and foremost an exploration of to what extent living systems can be re-designed and modified.

The rE. coli project is a collaborative effort to re-engineer the genetic code of E. coli strain MG1655. We are nearing completion of the first organism engineered throughout its genome to remove every instance of one of its 64 codons. The result will be a hole in the genetic code, a plug-and-play opportunity for programming in new chemical functions not seen in nature. It will also be the first step towards generating organisms with an orthogonal genetic code, unable to correctly translate genomes from outside their own genome. This feature is predicted to block the ability of viruses/bacteriophage to infect. In a more distant envisioning, crops with such a feature would be unable to cross with wild strains. Such engineered organisms will in a sense be protected behind a genetic firewall.

Peter Andrew Carr leads the research program in synthetic biology at MIT Lincoln Laboratory. A central goal of his work is to expand the scope of what can be achieved by genetic engineering, from single genes to the engineering of complete genomes. Topics of focus include: 1) the rE. coli project, which aims to rewrite the genetic code by genome-scale reformatting of the E. coli chromosome. 2) microfluidic gene and protein synthesis for high throughput production (and prototyping) of genetic systems; and 3) programming genomes for improved control and biosafety.

Dr. Carr holds a Bachelors degree in Biochemistry from Harvard College and a Ph.D. in Biochemistry and Molecular Biophysics from Columbia University. Following his post-doctoral research in the lab of Peter S. Kim (Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research), he started and led the GeneFab research team under Prof. Joe Jacobson at the MIT Media Lab and the Center for Bits and Atoms.

This joint meeting of the Boston Chapters of the IEEE Computer and Engineering in Medicine and Biology Societies, the MIT biological engineering and biomedical engineering student group (BE-BMES) and GBC/ACM will be held in the Broad Institute Auditorium (MIT building NE-30). The Broad Institute is on Main St between Vassar and Ames streets. You can see it on a map at this location. The auditorium is on the ground floor near the entrance.
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