Engineering Living Matter
We are passionate about making living matter fully engineerable. We don't consider this goal to be abstract or arbitrary, rather something that should be accomplished over the next few decades and that is absolutely central to enable all of humanity to flourish in partnership with Earth (10 billion happy people AND a healthy planet). See the following for additional high-level framing:
Fine, But What Can I Do?
People often struggle to parse our broad goal in ways that lead to specific opportunities, either as a potential student or postdoc here at Stanford or as a collaborator. We share the same struggle; it's a big puzzle with many opportunities! Practically, we have a few guiding principles that help us understand what projects and questions will be exciting to work on. We tend to look for and support projects that require progress along two or more of these principles:
- The Humpty Dumpty Problem -- How can we get orders of magnitude better at composing integrated synthetic biological systems comprised of functional biomolecules?
- The Swiss Watchmaker Problem -- Living systems are dominated by atomic-scale thermal noise yet, when so-selected, can realized incredibly precise dynamic behavior. How can we best engineer precision dynamics within synthetic living systems?
- Joy's Law -- Briefly, "most people work for other people." So what do you do about this fact? Only ~1 in 100,000 work for Larry Page, yet Larry benefits whenever someone links one web page to another, regardless of whether he pays them. How should Joy's Law practically ramify in biology and biotechnology?
- Biologization of Industry -- Many people default to a mindset of industrialization. But, why naively inherit a metaphor that dominated 19th century Britain? Biology is the ultimate distributed manufacturing platform. We are keen to explore and make true future biotechnologies that enable people to more directly and freely make whatever they need where-ever they are.
- Real-Time Bug Debug -- Shouldn't it be possible to program and debug synthetic biological systems on the same physical time scale by which the biology operates? Why do we have to grow up and sacrifice billions of cells every time we want to see if a simple recombinant plasmid works?
- Keep Synthetic Biology Weird -- Most of biotechnology hasn't yet been imagined let alone made true. Why settle?
Any Specific Examples
Here are some examples of recent or ongoing projects that recombine various aspects of the above:
- Rewritable genetic logic and data storage (many parts, precision dynamics)
- Engineering lineage-agnostic cells (even more parts, many people, precision dynamics)
- Enabling wood-fungus to grow many things (distributed manufacturing, keeping it weird)
- Growing arbitrary patterns (many parts, precision dynamics)
- What are all the atoms inside a cell? (many parts, new tools)
- Robobench (aka "Alexa, do this experiment for me!") (new tools, many people)
Research Background & Context, Additional Materials
The many and diverse dissertations from past students in the lab, their peer-reviewed published articles, and our written perspectives and other published projects are all freely available online. We hope that students who are interested in exploring and taking forward their own research projects in the lab will be informed and inspired by the curiosity and independence of past student's work. We hope that others who are interested in understanding, contributing to, or constructively criticizing the lab's work make full use of our published record.