Professor Cooper Breakthrough

Eric Cooper
Scientific Innovation: In the News and in Our Labs

By Eric Cooper, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Biology

In September 2018, The New York Times reported on a successful preliminary clinical trial performed by scientists at the Boston based biotech company Synlogic. They used synthetic biology to “reprogram” the harmless bacteria that normally reside within us into a delivery system to provide a missing enzyme to individuals with the hereditary disease Phenylketonuria (PKU). This could usher in a new generation of novel therapies for improving people’s lives.

“I am so eager to see what happens with these synthetic biology tools meet the fresh ideas of our students!”

Synthetic biology is a set of tools for building individual genes, networks of interacting genes, or even whole genomes, with useful properties in biotechnology and medicine. The Synlogic story is just the latest example of exciting synthetic biology breakthroughs that also include the construction of genetic “devices” that can sense contaminants in food and water supplies (and do so in remote areas without access to a lab) and engineering cells to produce the antimalarial drug artemisinin much more efficiently than previous methods could.

This relatively new field is not often taught at small colleges, but it soon will be at Hartwick. I am so excited to be part of a team that was recently awarded a fiveyear National Science Foundation (NSF) grant for expanding the “Build a Genome Network,” which consists of individuals interested in integrating synthetic biology into undergraduate curricula. The grant, which I wrote in collaboration with Principal Investigator Dr. Lisa Scheifele (Loyola University, Maryland), Dr. Robert Newman (North Carolina A&T State University), and Dr. Jordan Steele (Colorado State University-Pueblo), was inspired by an experience we shared as postdoctoral fellows, when we helped teach a unique course at Johns Hopkins called Builda-Genome. Dr. Jef Boeke conceived of this intensive laboratory course in which undergraduates used synthetic biology methods to help assemble the world’s first synthetic eukaryotic genome. Remarkably, what Dr. Boeke started in a small teaching lab in Baltimore has blossomed into a major collaboration and an international effort.

Our new NSF grant is for developing undergraduate synthetic biology “modules” for course-based research projects that will equip students with tools for designing, building, and testing their own genetic devices, using methods similar to those used for constructing those “reprogrammed” bacteria. In addition, we will organize and host annual workshops to teach gene synthesis methods and provide a forum for students from different colleges to interact and present their research. I am so eager see what happens when these synthetic biology tools meet the fresh ideas of our students!

Appeared in Fall 2018 issue of The Wick