Synthetic Biology

Rice University has over 20 Synthetic Biology research groups, which share the goal of overcoming central challenges in engineering biology. These labs are pioneering new tools, technologies, and theories to transform our ability to predictably design biological systems. This includes the development of programmable biological parts for constructing genetic circuits, resolving design rules for creating multicellular genetic programs that have complex temporal and spatial behaviors, and developing safe strategies to test and use synthetic systems in real, complex settings. These groups apply these advances to a range of synthetic biology applications—delivering biological solutions to improve health, enable sustainable practices, and yield bioelectronics technologies.

Theme I. Cell-Based Therapeutics

Our faculty are focused on elucidating the function of cells as natural sensors and repurposing them as components in smart living therapeutics. Leveraging unique research strengths at Rice and its adjacency to the Texas Medical Center, efforts are focused on immune diseases, neurological diseases, and cancers. Faculty also leverage these sensors for the noninvasive imaging and manipulation of tissues deep within the body to study physiology and disease. Finally, our faculty are developing new modalities for engineering the microbial communities that live upon the human body to maintain health, treat diseases, and prevent infections.

Theme II. Living Electronics

Our faculty are developing synthetic molecules and cells that can be used as components within digital devices. They are creating genetic programs that enable cells to convert chemical information in the environment into electrical information in real-time and developing strategies to read this information out using digital devices. By interfacing synthetic cells with built materials, they are also working to create seamless two-way electrical communication between cells and devices to enable novel sensing and actuating applications that support our health and sustainable practices in the environment.

Theme III. Sustainable Living Materials

Our faculty are working to program cells to produce materials that rival the structure and function of natural materials. These efforts seek to extend beyond traditional metabolic engineering and to establish the knowledge required to control the biological synthesis and patterning of proteins and cells from the micron to meter scales. Through synthetic biology, these efforts are working to yield sustainable replacements for existing materials, impossible materials with physical properties unrivaled in conventional materials, and living materials that can self-replicate and self-repair.

Theme IV. Programming Environmental Consortia

Our faculty are studying how to transfer genetic circuits into environmental consortia without the need for organismal domestication, program precise, micron-scale sensing and actuation within cells of natural, structured microbial consortia, program control over cell-cell and cell-material interaction networks in heterogeneous environments, and achieve effective biocontainment within complex geological and built environments of relevance to future synthetic biology applications. These efforts all work to discover the underlying design principles by integrating experimental and computational approaches.

Training Faculty