The Biosystems Design (BSD) research theme focuses on the development and application of synthetic biology tools for the design of improved or novel biological systems to produce better crops, new methods of drug production, novel medical treatments, or other biotechnological innovations. Synthetic biology was launched with bacteria and yeast, but our ability to reprogram higher eukaryotes is rather limited. Therefore, by addressing the most fundamental issues in eukaryotic synthetic biology, the theme is creating new methods to tackle two grand challenges facing human society: health and sustainability. The applications of greatest interest to the theme are:
Improving the efficiency of photosynthetic energy conversion in food and biofuel crops
Improving nitrogen utilization in major cereal crops (maize, wheat, rice)
Altering the protein content in food crops
Improving drug production
Enabling fundamental biological research
Reprogramming mammalian cell fates
The common element in these problems is the need to alter the expression of multiple genes within an organism. This in turn will require tools for precisely altering the genome sequence, vectors for expressing multiple genes, and a design framework for knowing which sequences to alter and what to alter them to. These technologies do not yet exist; the interdisciplinary team of the BSD research theme has the engineering, biochemical, computing, and biological expertise needed to develop them.
To meet these challenges, the BSD research theme focuses on two research programs: one focused on foundational technologies, and the other on design platforms. The goal of the foundational technologies program is to develop synthetic biology tools, including but not limited to methods for automated and scalable construction of large DNA molecules such as pathways, genetic circuits, and plasmids, methods for editing of eukaryotic genomes with greater precision and efficiency and on a larger scale, and methods for consistent, stable expression of inserted transgenes. Developing such technologies will remove many of the technical roadblocks limiting eukaryotic synthetic biology. The goal of the design platform program is to develop a computational framework that enables users to find the most effective way to apply these tools.
The Illinois Biological Foundry for Advanced Biomanufacturing (iBioFAB) is a fully integrated computational and physical infrastructure that supports rapid design, fabrication, validation/quality control, and analysis of genetic constructs and organisms. As the first "living foundry" in the world, the iBioFAB provides a new manufacturing paradigm for chemicals, materials, and biologics.