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.

Staphylococcus epidermis
Interactions between human cells and the bacteria that inhabit our bodies can affect health. Here, Staphylococcus epidermis binds to nasal epithelial cells. (Image courtesy of Sheetal Trivedi and Sean Sullivan.)

Launched in 2014 by investigators in the Mailman School of Public Health, the CUMC Microbiome Working Group brings together basic, clinical, and population scientists interested in understanding how the human microbiome—the ecosystems of bacteria that inhabit and interact with our tissues and organs—affects our health. Computational biologists in the Department of Systems Biology have become increasingly involved in this interdepartmental community, contributing expertise in analytical approaches that make it possible to make sense of the large data sets that microbiome studies generate.

Economic Markets and Biological Markets

In a similar manner to the ways in which countries make and trade goods, microbial cells within bacterial communities exchange metabolites to promote cell growth. This perspective could provide a way of studying microbial communities from the perspective of economics.

An article in the Wall Street Journal reports on a recent collaboration involving Columbia University Department of Systems Biology Assistant Professor Harris Wang and Claremont Graduate University economist Joshua Tasoff that identified some intriguing similarities between economic markets and the exchange of resources among microbes within bacterial communities. 

In an unusual marriage, biology and economics appear to be a match made in heaven.

Four years ago, two former roommates reunited at a friend’s wedding had time to catch up. The first, an economist, asked: “What are you working on?” The second, a biologist, answered: “How microbial communities interact. It’s kind of like in economics.”

And that’s when the intellectual sparks began to fly.

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

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.