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Harris WangHarris Wang

Harris Wang has been named a recipient of the prestigious Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE). Dr. Wang is among 102 researchers recognized today by President Barack Obama as the newest recipients of this honor.

The PECASE is considered the United States’ highest award for young scientists and engineers, conferred annually at the White House at the recommendation of participating federal agencies. The award celebrates young researchers at the beginning of their independent research careers who show exceptional promise to lead at the frontiers of twenty-first century science and technology.

Department of Systems Biology bioengineer Harris Wang describes the goals of the Human Genome Project - Write (HGP-write), an international initiative to develop new technologies for synthesizing very large genomes from scratch. 

In June 2016, a consortium of synthetic biologists, industry leaders, ethicists, and others  published a proposal in Science calling for a coordinated effort to synthesize large genomes, including a complete human genome in cell lines. The organizers of the project, called GP-write (for work in model organisms and plants) or sometimes HGP-write (for work in human cell lines), envision it as a successor to the Human Genome Project (retroactively termed HGP-read), which 25 years ago promoted rapid advances in DNA sequencing technology. As the ability to read the genome became more efficient and less expensive, it in turn enabled a revolution in how we study biology and attempt to improve human health. Now, by coordinating the development of new technologies for writing DNA on a whole-genome scale, GP-write aims to have a similarly transformative impact.

Among the paper’s authors were Virginia Cornish and Harris Wang, two members of the Columbia University Department of Systems Biology whose contributions to the field of engineering biology have in part made the idea of writing large-scale DNA sequences imaginable. We spoke with them to learn more about what GP-write hopes to accomplish, its potential benefits, and how the effort is evolving.

Andrew Anzalone and Sakellarios ZairisMD/PhD students Andrew Anzalone and Sakellarios Zairis combined approaches based in chemical biology, synthetic biology, and computational biology to develop a new method for protein engineering.

The ribosome is a reliable machine in the cell, precisely translating the nucleotide code carried by messenger RNAs (mRNAs) into the polypeptide chains that form proteins. But although the ribosome typically reads this code with uncanny accuracy, translation has some unusual quirks. One is a phenomenon called -1 programmed ribosomal frameshifting (-1 PRF), in which the ribosome begins reading an mRNA one nucleotide before it should. This hiccup bumps translation “out of frame,” creating a different sequence of three-nucleotide-long codons. In essence, -1 PRF thus gives a single gene the unexpected ability to code for two completely different proteins.

Recently Andrew Anzalone, an MD/PhD student in the laboratory of Virginia Cornish, set out to explore whether he could take advantage of -1 PRF to engineer cells capable of producing alternate proteins. Together with Sakellarios Zairis, another MD/PhD student in the Columbia University Department of Systems Biology, the two developed a pipeline for identifying RNA motifs capable of producing this effect, as well as a method for rationally designing -1 PRF “switches.” These switches, made up of carefully tuned strands of RNA bound to ligand-sensing aptamers, can react to the presence of a specific small molecule and reliably modulate the ratio in the production of two distinct proteins from a single mRNA. The technology, they anticipate, could offer a variety of exciting new applications for synthetic biology. A paper describing their approach and findings has been published in Nature Methods.

Columbia University iGEM Team 2015

The Columbia University 2015 iGEM Team (l-r): Hudson Lee, Suppawat Kongthong, Jacky Cheung, Kenya Velez, Samuel Magaziner, and faculty moderator Harris Wang.

A team of undergraduate students based at Columbia University for the first time participated in this year’s International Genetically Engineered Machine Foundation (iGEM) competition. Supervised by Department of Systems Biology Assistant Professor Harris Wang, the team spent this past summer developing a project that used synthetic biology methods to engineer an edible, probiotic consortium of bacteria that could regulate hunger and digestion. In September they presented their results at the iGEM Giant Jamboree in Boston, MA, where they received a silver medal for their efforts. (For more informtion about their project, see the Columbia iGEM Team website.)

“I think it’s fantastic that this ambitious group of undergraduates worked so hard to represent Columbia University on this international stage,” says Dr. Wang. “Columbia has one of the great undergraduate colleges, and now that we have a critical mass of interested students and faculty laboratories with expertise in synthetic biology, we think iGEM offers a valuable opportunity to compete with and learn from teams at other leading institutions.”

Gut-Brain Microbiota
A grant from the Office of Naval Research will support the development of three foundational synthetic biology technologies for engineering the human gut microbiota.

Harris Wang, an assistant professor in the Columbia University Department of Systems Biology, has been selected for the Office of Naval Research 2015 Young Investigators Program. This highly selective program promotes the development of early-career academic scientists whose research shows exceptional promise and creativity. With the support of this award, Dr. Wang will extend his research in the field of synthetic biology to develop new technologies for engineering the gut microbiome, the ecosystem of bacteria that inhabit the human digestive system. These new methods, Wang anticipates, could provide new ways of designing communities of different microbial species and ultimately modulating interactions between the gut, the immune system, and the brain.

Gut bacteria

Photo by David Gregory and Debbie Marshall, Wellcome Images. 

Recent deep sequencing studies are providing an increasingly detailed picture of the genetic composition of the human microbiome, the diverse collection of bacterial species that inhabit the gut. At the same time, however, little is known about the dynamics of these colonies, particularly why certain microbial strains outcompete others in the same environment. In a new paper published in the journal Molecular Systems Biology, Department of Systems Biology Assistant Professor Harris Wang, in collaboration with Georg Gerber and researchers at Harvard University, report on their development of the first method for using functional metagenomics to identify genes within commensal bacterial genomes that give them an evolutionary fitness advantage.

Harris Wang

Harris Wang, an assistant professor in the Columbia University Department of Systems Biology and Department of Pathology and Cell Biology, has been selected to receive a 2015 Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Research Fellowship in computational and evolutionary molecular biology. This two-year, $50,000 grant will support work that combines methods from synthetic biology and computational biology to study how horizontal gene transfer contributes to microbial evolution.

Since 1955, the Sloan Research Fellowship program has supported outstanding early-career scientists in recognition of their achievements and their potential to make important contribution to their fields. This year’s fellows included 126 investigators, with 12 awardees in the field of computational and evolutionary molecular biology. Other disciplines represented in the awards include chemistry, computer science, economics, mathematics, neuroscience, ocean sciences, and physics.

Harris Wang

As a graduate student in George Church’s lab at Harvard University, Harris Wang developed MAGE, a revolutionary tool for the field of synthetic biology that made it possible to introduce genomic mutations into E. coli cells in a highly specific and targeted way. Now an Assistant Professor in the Columbia University Department of Systems Biology, Dr. Wang recently published a paper in ACS Synthetic Biology that introduces an important advance in the MAGE technology. The new technique, called (MO)-MAGE, uses microarrays to engineer pools of oligonucleotides that, once amplified and integrated into a genome, can generate thousands or even millions of highly controlled mutations simultaneously. This new method offers a cost-effective way for designing and producing large numbers of genomic variants and provides an efficient platform for experimentally exploring genome-wide landscapes of mutations in bacteria and optimizing the organisms’ biochemical capabilities.

In the following interview, Dr. Wang explains the origins of the new technology, and discusses what he sees as the remarkable potential it holds for both basic biological research and industrial applications of synthetic biology.

A panel at the Helix Center, titled "Synthetic and Systems Biology: Reinventing the Code of Life included Columbia University professors Saeed Tavazoie and Andrea Califano, as well as Michael Hecht (Professor of Chemistry, Princeton University), Mark Fishman (President, Novartis Institutes for BioMedical Research), Christopher Mason (Assistant Professor of Physiology and Biophysics, Institute for Computational Biology, Weill Cornell Medical College), and Michael Waldholz (Medical Science Writer and Media Consultant).

Advances in genomics and the development of new technologies over the past decade have given biologists the ability to engineer DNA to perform specific functions. This emerging science, called synthetic biology, holds great potential for a number of applications, and experiments have already been done to reprogram algae to produce biofuels, design bacteria that can sense and consume toxic substances, and use living cells to manufacture compounds that can be used as drugs.

Synthetic biology has emerged in parallel with systems biology, but in many ways the two sciences are closely intertwined. As systems biology improves our mechanistic understanding of how biology functions at the molecular level, synthetic biology is taking this knowledge to push biology in new directions, from synthesizing molecules using biology all the way to synthesizing new forms of biological life.

In a public roundtable discussion at the Helix Center in New York City, Columbia University Department of Systems Biology professors Saeed Tavazoie  and Andrea Califano  joined a panel of experts in discussing the intersection of systems and synthetic biology, and the role that these two disciplines will play in the development of the biological and biomedical sciences in the coming years.