How To Make Medicine on Mars

Today NASA’s InSight lander will touch down on Mars. InSight, which launched on May 5, is NASA’s first Mars landing since the Curiosity rover in 2012. The lander will begin a two-year mission to study Mars’ deep interior, gathering data that will help scientists understand the formation of rocky planets, including Earth.

NASA's InSight lander approaching Mars.

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

While every spacecraft that reaches Mars offers more knowledge of the Red Planet, a lot of the excitement is fueled by hopes that someday these missions will bring humans to Mars and enable us to start colonies there. While this goal seems very distant, tremendous progress is being made. Scientists around the globe are making incremental discoveries that will lead to the advances necessary to make colonization of Mars a reality.

I had the pleasure of meeting one team of scientists doing just this—eight high school students from iGEM Team Navarra BG. I met the team and their advisors at the 2018 iGEM Giant Jamboree, where they presented their synthetic biology project, BioGalaxy, as part of the iGEM competition. The problem they aimed to solve is key to helping humans stay on Mars for an extended period of time—how do you take everything you need when there isn’t enough room on the spacecraft? Continue reading

Virtual Reality Is Changing How We Experience Science

The South Pole was exactly as I expected—snowy and barren, apart from the giant research station in front of me. Suddenly, I got a notification in my communication system that there was a strong signal coming from the sky. I looked up and changed the visual display settings of my goggles to find stunning views of the Solar System, all the way past Pluto. My heads-up display told me that I’ve discovered a subatomic particle, called a neutrino, that flies through the fabric of space at nearly the speed of light. I wanted to find the source of this neutrino, so I switched my display to X-ray vision. The signal brightened, and the source was revealed—a massive black hole. I captured as much data as possible so I could report back to the lead scientist on the project. What an exciting afternoon of research!

Okay, I’ve never actually been to the South Pole, but I experienced this event in virtual reality at a conference expo booth for the National Science Foundation. This experience put me in the shoes of an astrophysicist working at the IceCube Neutrino Detection Facility, operated by UW-Madison researchers. As someone who specializes in the life sciences, I had the opportunity to learn more about an area outside my expertise—the fascinating world of particle physics.

VR headsets offer immersive experiences for entertainment, education, training, and more.

Most people think of augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) in the context of gaming or entertainment. You’ve likely had a casual AR experience if you’ve ever given yourself a flower crown in Snapchat, or hunted for Charmander at your local park with the Pokémon GO app. Yet, as I experienced at a conference several weeks ago, AR and VR can have massive implications for education and training experiences in the sciences. Continue reading

In a Perfect World, Bacteria Wins

iGEM 2018 from aboveLast month, several of my Promega colleagues and I attended the 2018 iGEM Giant Jamboree in Boston, MA. This annual event is the culmination of the International Genetically Engineered Machines competition, in which 350+ teams of high school, undergraduate and graduate students use synthetic biology to solve a problem they see in the world.

The iGEM Giant Jamboree is the closest I have ever come to a scientific utopia. For four days, several thousand students from 45 countries come together to share their experiences and discuss ways that science can change the world. They present impressive projects with real-world applications including human diagnostics and alternative energy. Collaboration and open science are among the core tenets of iGEM, and it’s not unusual to see three or more countries represented on the Collaborators slide at the end of a presentation. Each project also contains a public engagement component, which many teams fulfill with educational programs or partnerships with underrepresented communities. Continue reading

Hey, iGEMers! We’re talking to you!

The 2018 iGEM Giant Jamboree is upon us! This Wednesday, October 24th, thousands of you will flood into Boston, weighed down by posters and presentation materials, but energized by the excitement of a non-stop science-packed conference. Promega will also be attending, with a booth full of helpful giveaways and staff standing by to answer all your questions about science, Promega or future careers. As you make your final plans for the Jamboree, here are a few helpful tips for making the most of this incredible opportunity.

Continue reading

Catalyzing Solutions with Synthetic Biology

Computer-generated model of a virus.

The keynote speaker for this year’s International Symposium on Human Identification (ISHI), Andrew Hessle, describes himself as a catalyst for big projects and ideas (1). In biology, catalysts are enzymes that alter the microenvironment and lower the energy of activation so that a chemical reaction that would proceed anyway happens at a much faster rate—making a reaction actually useful to the biological system in which it occurs.

In practical terms, Andrew Hessel is the person who helps us over our inertia. Instead of waiting for someone else, he sees a problem, gathers an interested group of people with diverse skills and perspectives, creates a microenvironment for these people to interact, and runs with them straight toward the problem. Boom. Reaction started.

One of the problems he has set his mind toward is that of cancer drug development. Continue reading

iGEM: Saving the World with Science

The University of Chicago 2016 iGEM team group photo (Photo credit: Julia Byeon)

Every year, groups of teenagers gather together and brainstorm ways to save the world—with science. The International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) Foundation is a non-profit organization that is dedicated to educating young scientists and enhancing open community and collaboration in the field of synthetic biology. They hold a competition every year with hundreds of teams participating from around the world.

Last year, Promega provided cloning reagents to the University of Chicago iGEM team, and they received a bronze medal for their work. We asked two of the team members, Steve Dvorkin and Julia Byeon, about their experience. Steve is a junior and majors in biology; he is co-president of the team this year. Julia recently graduated and works in public policy. Continue reading

iGEM: Building Living Machines

Life forms are often compared to machines, whether you are referring to a single cell or a complex organism. This concept is the basis for the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) Competition. Each year, high school and university students around the world assemble teams that create genetically engineered systems. In addition to the building work, teams document their process and progress through wikis that are assessed by judges at the end of the competition.


Some members of iGEM 2016 Team Duesseldorf.

In order to synthesize these living machines, iGEM teams use standard biological parts called biobricks—each biobrick is a sequence of DNA encoding a particular biological function. Teams receive a kit of standard biobricks and work over the summer to build and test biological systems in living cells. These basic units are put together to make more complex parts which can then be grouped together to make “devices” that can function within living cells. Continue reading

Manipulating Microbiota: A Synthetic Biology Exploration of the Gut

33553646_lMicrobial cells outnumber the cells of our own bodies approximately 10:1, these microbes that live on our skin and along the epithelial linings of our internal tubes make up our microbiota*, and they can have major effects on our health. Most of our microbiota are commensal organisms, living in harmony with our body, but if you suppress our immune system or greatly reduce their populations with large doses of antibiotics, and you will soon see the effects of disrupting our microbiota.

There is much interest in the microbiota that inhabit our bodies. For instance several studies have indicated that intestinal microbes can play a big part in obesity, with changes in the makeup of the microbiota being a major risk factor (1). But many of these organisms are hard to learn about—the ones that inhabit the deep folds of our gut thrive in moist, warm, anaerobic conditions with lots of specialized nutrients, conditions that are very hard to replicate in the laboratory. For that reason, we don’t know much about many of the microbes that are the most abundant within us.

The Human Microbiome Project begun in 2008 by the National Institutes of Health (2) seeks to understand human microbiota and their relationship to human health. To do this, the researchers leading the project took a metagenomic approach—using advanced DNA sequencing technologies to sequence the genomes of human microbiota and get a look at the human microbiome—without culturing the microbes.

But to truly understand their biology, and to perhaps exploit what we learn to enhance human health we need to be able to manipulate these organisms. In particular, biologists who are interested in synthetic biology would like to use these micro-organisms to monitor what is going on in our bodies, particularly our guts. What better monitor for these hard-to-access places than an organism that is already well adapted to live there?  Continue reading

Designer Bacteria Detect Cancer

Every day scientists apply creative ideas to solve real-world problems. Every so often a paper comes up that highlights the creativity and elegance of this process in a powerful way. The paper “Programmable probiotics for detection of cancer in urine”, published May 27 in Science Translational Medicine, provides one great example of the application of scientific creativity to develop potential new ways for early detection of cancer.

The paper describes use of an engineered strain of E.coli to detect liver tumors in mice. The authors (Danino et al) developed a potential diagnostic assay that uses a simple oral delivery method and provides a readout from urine, all of which is made possible by some seriously complex and elegant science. Continue reading

Synthetic Biology: Reaching Back 20 …Make that 50 Years

Recently I had the opportunity to meet emeritus professor Dr. Waclaw Szybalski from the University of Wisconsin- Madison, who has worked at the McArdle Laboratory for Cancer Research since 1960.  

During an interview we discussed Dr. Szybalski’s amazing exit from his native Poland in 1946 following the alternating German and Soviet occupations, his education in the early days of genetic engineering, and finally the foundational work he has done in both prokaryotic and eukaryotic genetic engineering.

Photo of award from Polish government for Szybalski's research contributions.

Doctor Honoris Causa awarded to Waclaw Szybalski. Szybalski, in his laboratory, background. Photo: Maciek Smuga-Otto.

At age 90 Szybalski continues to maintain a laboratory with postgraduate students. At the same time (and with Promega’s assistance) he continues to support research in Poland. In May 2011, Szybalski was honored by the President of Poland with the highest order, Grand Cross of Polonia Restituta, celebrating his many scientific contributions, including: 1) establishment of the genetic basis of antibiotic resistance in bacteria;
2) multidrug therapy for bacterial pathogens and leukemia; and 3) the ability to sensitize mammalian cells to radiation. Continue reading