Team:WITS-South Africa


Revision as of 07:40, 20 July 2010 by Rumbold (Talk | contribs)

Synthetic biology

Synthetic biology is a revolutionary, dynamic field resulting from the fusion of engineering and molecular biology that has the potential to impact many facets of society. It is an inter-disciplinary field involving chemists, biologists, engineers, physicists, mathematicians, computer scientists and even philosophers.

This dynamic field can also be defined as the use of artificial molecules to reproduce emergent behaviour from natural biology, with the goal of creating artificial life forms or otherwise to seek interchangeable biological parts with the intention of assembling them into devices or systems that function in a manner not found in nature. Because humans are living, biological entities - the greatest benefits of synthetic biology may result from its application to medicine.


Project Outline

The development of a whole-cell biosensor for the immediate, in vivo detection of Human Papillomavirus (HPV), in the form of an engineered commensal vaginal bacterium. This mechanism would be safe, low-cost and easily administrable; and is intended primarily for women in resource-poor settings.

The link between HPV and cervical cancer is well-established. Although much progress has been made in developing a vaccine, the vaccines that are currently available have some limitations (mainly due to high cost and inadequate accessibility) in their ability to prevent disease burden in developing countries, where 80% of cervical cancer deaths occur annually.

This inspired the search for a method of detecting the virus that will alert the infected individual in a discreet yet persistent manner. The machine would also have the potential to be further adapted to have the ability to neutralise the virus and prevent the infection from spreading. Basically, the machine that we wish to design will be able to detect an infectious agent and inform neighbouring bacteria - as well as the host - as to the presence of that pathogen.

The chassis of the machine, Lactobacillus gasseri, is a predominant commensal vaginal microbe and is ideally situated to detect and deter HPV. Interbacterial communication is achieved by quorum sensing, which has been studied in detail in various organisms such as gram positive bacilli and thus we have elected to use one of these pathways as the means of propagating the response signal throughout the population. Each bacterium will produce a visible reporter on receipt of the signal which the infected woman would be able to detect without medical assistance shortly after infection.

Our team consists of students from various disciplines such as molecular biology, mathematics, engineering and philosophy. Whilst the biologists will focus on building the machine in the wetlab, the mathematicians and engineers will model its predicted behaviour and effect in vivo whilst the philosopher will focus on the ethics of creating such a machine for medical application.