In a first-of-its-kind initiative, synthetic biology is at the center of a new research institute which aims to develop technologies that will reveal how changes in cells and genes over time influence human health and disease.
The institute, named the Seattle Hub for Synthetic Biology, is being launched by The Allen Institute, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI), and the University of Washington (UW). By developing new technologies, the researchers hope to advance the understanding of not just end point measurements of cells and genes in health and disease, but the dynamics of their trajectories over time. It will bring together large-scale science and philanthropy with academic research to develop, refine, and share single-cell technology.
The Seattle Hub for Synthetic is led by Jay Shendure, MD, PhD, Marion Pepper, PhD, Cole Trapnell, PhD, and Jesse Gray, PhD—all UW Medicine researchers.
“Imagine being able to put a smart watch into each of your cells to record the genome itself and everything that cell is experiencing,” says Shendure, executive director of the Seattle Hub for Synthetic Biology and a professor of genome sciences at UW School of Medicine. “Currently, when biologists take measurements, we’re limited to either observing how a few things change over time with a microscope, or to measuring everything but only at the moment in time that we break open the cell. With the kind of genomic smart watch that we’re aiming to build, one could recover the full autobiography of each cell, rather than only the last page.”
The Seattle Hub will build on technology pioneered at the Allen Discovery Center for Cell Lineage Tracing and UW Medicine’s Brotman Baty Institute for Precision Medicine to reimagine living cells and genomes as devices for recording complex biological information over time.
“Every cell in our body has its own unique history. By developing new technologies to measure and understand the history of our cells over time, including how they are impacted by the environment around them, genetic mutations, and other factors, we can expand scientists’ understanding of what happens at the cellular level when we go from healthy to sick and help pinpoint the earliest causes of disease,” says Priscilla Chan, MD, co-founder and co-CEO of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative.
This new paradigm has the potential to advance how scientists study the role of cells and genes in human health by providing clarity into how biological events unfold over time. For example, the causal chain of molecular and cellular events that begins with a genetic mutation and culminates in a developmental disease seen in the clinic. The technology will be proven out in the form of a research tool to study changes in cells in the context of development and immunology, with the vision to potentially extend the project into diverse research, diagnostic, and clinical applications.
The Allen Institute and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative share a joint commitment to open science, and as such, findings from the new institute will be shared with the scientific community to fuel progress in labs and around the world.
“We are incredibly excited to enter this new era of collaboration to tackle big moonshot projects in partnership with others,” says Rui Costa, DVM, PhD, president and chief executive officer of the Allen Institute. “We’re bringing together experts in genomic engineering and synthetic biology to advance a new age of experimentation that will allow us to record the history of biological events in our cells, and eventually to design new, smart interventions for disease.”