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CAREER: Engineering Bacteria Swarming for Biotechnology


Synthetic biology is a tool for designing useful coordinated behaviors in bacterial populations. To date, these efforts have focused on modifying E. coli. Other bacteria exhibit more complex behavior than E. coli. One example of this is swarming. E. coli is capable of localized swarming, similar to a flock of birds all flying together in a particular direction. Other bacteria are capable of forming more complex patterns. One example is the formation of periodic ring patterns that can be easily observed visually. The basic idea behind the project is both simple and powerful. If bacteria can be designed to swarm, forming rings in response to a specific signal, the cells can act as a sensor that can be observed easily. The signals could be viruses, toxic chemicals, or dangerous pathogens. These bacteria could then provide a low cost, easily observed method of detection that could be used around the world to help identify and avoid diseases or other toxic agents. The project will also advance STEM education and diversity at several levels. STEM + arts (STEAM) workshops will be developed and run. Students will be recruited to participate in research. In addition, biology-based artworks will be presented to the general public.<br/><br/>The objective of this project is to engineer bacterial swarming to generate macroscopic patterns. We hope to create a spatially-encoded biosensor. The first step will be to engineer E. coli gene circuits to create synthetic swarming motility on solid agar. This will help us understand how to control swarming behavior and pattern formation from the bottom-up. A top-down effort will modulate natural swarming behavior in other organ-isms. This will also create a synthetic biology toolkit for these organisms. Finally, these organisms and E. coli will be engineered to record a transient signal by permanently modulating pattern formation. These biosensors will then be applied to the detection of parasites. The biosensor readout will produce patterns at the scale of a Petri dish and easily detectable by eye. Thus, this readout will be invaluable for use in low-resource settings. The complementary bottom-up and top-down approaches will provide fundamental insight into the use of microbial hosts and behaviors as sensors.<br/><br/>This award reflects NSF's statutory mission and has been deemed worthy of support through evaluation using the Foundation's intellectual merit and broader impacts review criteria.

Tal Danino
Columbia University
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