Skip to main content

Synthetic Biologists at Northwestern

Five researchers in disciplines ranging from chemistry to biology to engineering

By Meg McSherry Breslin

Neda Bagheri, 32, is an assistant professor of chemical and biological engineering at the McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science. She employs network and control theory to better understand and predict biological function. In doing so, Bagheri seeks to identify novel molecular targets that can be used to modulate biological response. While recent efforts have focused on cancer, immune function and cell fate, her computational research can be applied to a wide variety of biological questions. “The integration of higher-throughput, higher-resolution data with unique computational strategies has the potential to transform synthetic and systems biology. I believe the collaborative and cross-disciplinary projects at Northwestern will produce high-impact results in the very near future,” Bagheri said of synthetic biologists’ research into new drug therapies to fight widespread disease, including cancers.  

Michael Jewett, 37, assistant professor of chemical and biological engineering at the McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science, uses cell-free systems to create new therapies, chemicals and novel materials to impact public health and the environment. Jewett has received numerous research awards, including a Packard Foundation fellowship, and is a sought-after speaker and facilitator for international conferences on synthetic biology. Working with partners at Harvard Medical School, Jewett helped mimic the natural synthesis of a ribosome, which could lead to the discovery of new antibiotics. “We have a newfound ability to read, write and edit DNA, the code of life,” Jewett said. “And this enables us to analyze it faster and cheaper so it becomes relevant to society.”

Joshua Leonard, 35, assistant professor of chemical and biological engineering at the McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science, is working on programmable cell-based devices for treating cancer. He’s also looking to develop smart vaccines and treatments for chronic diseases. “There are many signs that synthetic biology will usher in the next big technological wave, driving innovation and economic activity just as we saw at the dawn of the information age,” he said of the field. “The ability to engineer living technology is simply not a capability we have had in the past, and this is a tantalizing prospect with broad-reaching potential impact.” Joining his colleagues, Leonard is a world-renowned expert in his field and has testified before the U.S. House Committee on Science and Technology about the potential of synthetic biology.

Milan Mrksich, 45, joined Northwestern in 2011, after 15 years as a professor at the University of Chicago. He is the Henry Wade Rogers Professor of Biomedical Engineering, Chemistry and Cell and Molecular Biology, with appointments in the McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science, Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences and Feinberg School of Medicine. Among the world’s leading engineers when it comes to the interface between materials and biology, Mrksich is also an entrepreneur. He co-founded Chicago-based SAMDI Tech Inc., which uses biochips to quickly detect enzyme reactions within cells, thus speeding up the process for finding effective drug therapies, among a range of applications. “We’re really helping lay the foundation for a field,” he said of the synthetic biology researchers at Northwestern. “We’re looking at what problems the field will address and what tools will be used to address them.” He said one implication of the work is likely to be “new opportunities to develop drugs and make drugs more accessible.”

Keith Tyo, 34, assistant professor of chemical and biological engineering at the McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science, is looking to engineer new materials, such as drugs and fuels at lower costs to treat intractable diseases in the developing world and provide sustainable liquid fuels for transportation. He is a researcher for three prestigious synthetic biology grants awarded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation -- all designed to improve outcomes for the extremely impoverished against pervasive diseases, such as malaria and HIV. “One of the primary things I care about in this world is alleviating suffering associated with poverty,” he said. “I chose synthetic biology as a research field because of the unique and profound impacts it could have for the resource-poor. This is a really the profound application of synthetic biology for me.”

Except for Tyo, the researchers are members of the Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center of Northwestern University.