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Illinois IGB

New IGB Theme Develops Engineered Living Systems with Novel Functionalities

May 11, 2020
By: Alisa King

For years, artificial systems - such as robots and machines - have been used for industrial applications, making a tremendous impact on society. However, steady progress made by scientists could see the replacement of artificial systems with “Multi-Cellular Engineered Living Systems” (M-CELS) composed of living cells and extracellular matrices organized to perform novel functions absent in natural systems. 

Two research programs - bio-hybrid robots and biological processors - form the foundation of the newly formed IGB research theme M-CELS, which will be led by Robert W. Schafer Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering Hyunjoon Kong (RBTE). 

“We can utilize M­CELS to assemble various transformative engineering systems, such as a bio­hybrid robot, an organic computer, and energy generation device, as well as other new and unforeseen possibilities,” said Kong. “These systems may also encompass implantable “hyper­organs” that sense a biological signal, and in response, synthesize, secrete and deliver a biologic product, via diffusion or pumping.”

The M-CELS theme will focus on developing in silico, cellular, and artificial components for precision assembly of biomachinery and computing processors along with genomics and proteomics of M-CELS. Through a team-based approach spanning multiple disciplines, M-CELS will aim to construct new and efficient pathways for solving real-world needs. 

“We believe this theme will be critical in promoting interactions with the biologists, computational scientists, and engineers in other IGB themes,” said Kong. “Numerous themes at the IGB have demonstrated the ability to successfully integrate researchers from the computer, physical, chemical, and life sciences, and we expect to do the same.”

In addition to the research programs, an interdisciplinary training program will be implemented and available to students at both the undergraduate and graduate level. The program will be extended to outreach activities as well, including the Sparking High Schooler’s Excitement for Research in Engineering and Science (SpHERES) program hosted by Bioengineering and the College of Medicine. Another ongoing collaboration is the Emergent Behaviors of Integrated Cellular Systems (EBICS) Center, which is a coordinated effort between Illinois, Georgia Tech, and MIT funded by the NSF Science and Technology Center (STC). 

“Currently, theme members are working to engineer neuron­innervated bio­hybrid robots that perform autonomous functions in response to external stimuli,” said Kong. “These core technologies will provide enabling technologies and computational methods for the advancement of M-CELS, along with evolutionary insights and ethical considerations.”

Multi-Cellular Engineered Living Systems research theme membership:
Hyunjoon Kong (Theme Leader, Department of Chemical & Biomolecular Engineering) (RBTE)
Rashid Bashir (Department of Bioengineering) (CGD/RBTE)
Martha Gillette (Neuroscience Program, School of Molecular & Cell Biology) (GNDP)
Mattia Gazzola (Department of Mechanical Science and Engineering)
Taher Saif (Department of Mechanical Science and Engineering) (RBTE)
Gabriel Popescu (Department of Electrical & Computer Engineering)

May 11, 2020
By: Alisa King
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