The synthetic ecology theme of the University of Minnesota Biocatalysis Initiative was highlighted in an April 20th symposium featuring keynote addresses by Douglas Weibel of the University of Wisconsin and Allan Konopka of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL). The event drew a crowd of interested scientists to the McNamara Alumni Center for an introduction into how interacting microbes can be designed to work together in efficient processes that neither microorganisms could do alone.

Claudia Schmidt-Dannert, a BioTechnology Institute (BTI) faculty member and an associate professor in the Department of Biochemistry Molecular Biology and Biophysic (BMBB), established a framework for the discussion by introducing the concept of utilizing natural systems to control microbe populations. “What we would like to do with this synthetic ecology idea,” she explained, “is to apply quorum sensing circuits to a biological process.”

How do you take a sensing system, organize it, and amplify it to make it into a workable process? Douglas Weibel, an assistant professor of both biochemistry and biomedical engineering, suggested that by understanding the structure of a microbe and the location of its protein sensors, one could study and control the communication between them and thus control the microbe’s interactions.

“I think this is an exciting time for synthetic ecology – for controlling and enabling communities,” concluded Weibel, who has developed a new stamping method of imaging bacterial structure he referred to as soft lithography.

Yiannis Kaznessis, on the other hand, is using mathematic modeling to predict protein interactions. Kaznessis, an associate professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science and a BTI faculty member, described how algorithms can be used to model reaction networks and how this can be used to model bacterial interactions for synthetic ecology

Michael Travisano (Dept. of Ecology, Evolution, and Behavior and BTI) took a different approach in outlining his work with yeast and talking about how understanding microbial reproduction can affect ecological systems. He described how we can select for multicellularity among single-celled microorganisms and that this will be important for how systems interact.

Larry Wackett (BTI and BMBB) developed a resource for predicting reaction networks – a resource, he said, that can be used as a tool to develop ideas about how organisms can be synthetically combined. Based on metabolic rules, his Biocatalysis and Biodegradation Database has practical applications for synthetic ecology. He also described several examples of synthetic ecology that revolved around biodegradation.

PNNL lab fellow Allan Konopka referenced Wackett’s work and that of other BTI faculty members in talking generally about synthetic ecology before speaking specifically to PNNL’s Microbial Communities Initiative – an effort he is leading to examine the active players in microbial communities and what they’re doing. “Biological systems are inherently complex and give rise to emergent properties,” he said. “It’s hard to engineer unstable biological systems.”

The Biocatalysis Initiative’s focus on synthetic ecology not only characterizes the work being done by faculty members, but also encompasses director Michael Sadowsky’s theme of getting scientists to work together.

-Tim Montgomery