Virginia Tech researchers are working on how to design made-to-order DNA molecules — and have received nearly $1 million to do so.
The university recently received a three-year, $999,531 grant from the National Science Foundation for research into the field of custom DNA synthesis and fabrication. The funds are from the NSF’s CREATIV, or Creative Research Awards for Transformative Interdisciplinary Ventures, grant mechanism.
CREATIV grants are awarded to encourage cross-disciplinary projects within the sciences to increase discoveries, which might be missed through traditional approaches. To that end, the Tech laboratory receiving the grant is using methods from industrial engineering and biology to optimize the current process of DNA fabrication.
The research team is composed of Jean Peccoud, an associate professor at the Virginia Bioinformatics Institute, Jaime Camelio and Kimberly Ellis, both of whom are associate professors of industrial and systems engineering within the College of Engineering.
The interdisciplinary project combines the scientists’ fields of molecular biology, genetics, manufacturing systems and production.
DNA fabrication is the process of designing and building synthetic biological systems for custom purposes. Research being done in the area includes looking at how microorganisms can be designed and used for industrial purposes on a mass scale. DNA fabrication has the potential for medical, biology and industrial applications.
However, according to Tiffany Trent, communications coordinator for VBI, the research looks more at optimizing current laboratory processes rather than making a product.
“The point here is more in streamlining a process because there are so many problems with the process as it stands now that makes it extremely costly,” Trent said. “What his lab is trying to do is make it much more low-cost, much easier to do and make an infrastructure that is usable across the board.”
The researchers are optimistic about the gains of the project. In a VBI press release, Camelio said the research will allow students to gain experience in disciplines other than that which they are studying.
“This project will provide unique cross-training opportunities in biology and engineering for undergraduate students, graduate students, and post-doctoral fellows,” Camelio said.
“It will give industrial engineering students an opportunity to explore a new frontier. Life science students will gain exposure to management techniques that will help them streamline the operation of their labs in academia or industry after they graduate.”
Trent said while some people question the gains of basic research, such work is necessary in order to make further discoveries possible.
“Everyone wants applicable results, but without that basic foundational research, we can’t get to the applied science,” Trent said. “This is one of those cases of a really foundational project that could start all kinds of amazing things.”