Research Focus


Synthetic Biology

Synthetic Biology involves the design and construction of new biological units such as proteins/enzymes, gene circuits, and cellular systems or the re-design of existing biological systems. In essence, synthetic biology seeks to make biology easier to engineer. Synthetic biology involves designing, constructing and assembling core biological components such as gene circuits and metabolic pathways in a way that allows them to be modeled, understood, and tuned to meet specific performance criteria. This would then allow them to be assembled into larger integrated biological systems that can have a programmable function to solve specific problems. It is envisioned that synthetic biologists will soon design and build engineered biological systems and transform biology in the same way that synthesis transformed chemistry and integrated circuit design transformed computing. The applications of synthetic biology are vast - since its conception, synthetic biology has since been applied via engineering of microbes to address a number of challenging problems including the production of drugs and biofuels as well as biosensing, with the overall aim to address healthcare, energy sustainability challenges. Our School is actively engaged in Synthetic Biology research primarily in (i) foundational research and (ii) applications areas in energy and healthcare. In foundational research, we are developing modeling techniques and computer aided design tools for improved synthetic biology design. In the applications, we are engineering cellular systems (e.g. microbes) to spit out fuels as well as kill pathogens. Our undergraduates have participated in the annual International Genetically Engineered Machine Competition (iGEM) organized by MIT.


There is an overwhelming demand for new antimicrobial materials that are not vulnerable to the development of microbial resistance and which are also non-toxic and biocompatible. Contact active antimicrobial materials, such as positively charged (cationic) polymers, kill bacteria by disrupting their membranes rather than targeting microbe metabolism and consequently are believed to be less likely to lead to resistant bacteria. 
Schematic of capacitive deionization disinfection (CDID) and regeneration of electrode coated with cationic chitosan-graphene oxide on activated carbon for the continuous disruption of the anionic microbial envelopes which leads to microbe cell death (reproduced from ACS Nano 2015)

There are numerous unmet challenges that face medical therapies. These challenges often stem from the substantial physiological barriers that prevent drugs from passively entering into diseased tissue. For example, tumours often have heightened internal pressure hindering the entry of all classes of chemotherapeutic agent, and the blood vessels in the brain have an innate barrier to prevent large molecules from entering. As a result, many of treatments either rely on excessive use of the therapeutic agent, or resort to life changing surgeries to overcome these barriers. The group seeks to develop non-invasive methods that localize therapeutic molecules to the diseased regions, whilst leaving healthy tissue unharmed. 
Mechanism of action for stimulus-responsive strategies. In this example, co-administered drug and nanopump device are shown to extravasate beyond the blood vessel



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