Nuñez, I.N., Matute, T.F., Del Valle, I., Kan, A., Choksi, A., Endy, D., Haseloff, J., Rudge, T. and Federici, F., 2016. Artificial symmetry-breaking for morphogenetic engineering bacterial colonies. ACS Synthetic Biology.
Morphogenetic engineering is an emerging field that explores the design and implementation of self-organized patterns, morphologies and architectures in systems composed of multiple agents such as cells and swarm robots. Synthetic biology, on the other hand, aims to develop tools and formalisms that increase reproducibility, tractability and efficiency in the engineering of biological systems. We seek to apply synthetic biology approaches to the engineering of morphologies in multicellular systems. Here, we describe the engineering of two mechanisms, symmetry-breaking and domain-specific cell regulation, as elementary functions for the prototyping of morphogenetic instructions in bacterial colonies. The former represents an artificial patterning mechanism based on plasmid segregation while the latter plays the role of artificial cell differentiation by spatial co-localization of ubiquitous and segregated components. This separation of patterning from actuation facilitates the design-build-test-improve engineering cycle. We created computational modules for CellModeller representing these basic functions and used it to guide the design process and explore the design space in silico. We applied these tools to encode spatially structured functions such as metabolic complementation, RNAPT7 gene expression and CRISPRi/Cas9 regulation. Finally, as a proof of concept, we used CRISPRi/Cas technology to regulate cell growth by controlling methionine synthesis. These mechanisms start from single cells enabling the study of morphogenetic principles and the engineering of novel population scale structures from the bottom up.
Image credit: E-coli by Fernan Fedirici on Flickr