Computer assisted design (CAD) for RNA: Researchers develop CAD-type tools for engineering RNA control systems

The computer assisted design (CAD) tools that made it possible to fabricate integrated circuits with millions of transistors may soon be coming to the biological sciences. Researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE)’s Joint BioEnergy Institute (JBEI) have developed CAD-type models and simulations for RNA molecules that make it possible to engineer biological components or “RNA devices” for controlling genetic expression in microbes. This holds enormous potential for microbial-based sustainable production of advanced biofuels, biodegradable plastics, therapeutic drugs and a host of other goods now derived from petrochemicals.

“Because biological systems exhibit functional complexity at multiple scales, a big question has been whether effective design tools can be created to increase the sizes and complexities of the microbial systems we engineer to meet specific needs,” says Jay Keasling, director of JBEI and a world authority on synthetic biology and metabolic engineering. “Our work establishes a foundation for developing CAD platforms to engineer complex RNA-based control systems that can process cellular information and program the expression of very large numbers of genes. Perhaps even more importantly, we have provided a framework for studying RNA functions and demonstrated the potential of using biochemical and biophysical modeling to develop rigorous design-driven engineering strategies for biology.”

Keasling, who also holds appointments with the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) and the University of California (UC) Berkley, is the corresponding author of a paper in the journal Science that describes this work. The paper is titled “Model-driven engineering of RNA devices to quantitatively-program gene expression.” Other co-authors are James Carothers, Jonathan Goler and Darmawi Juminaga.

Synthetic biology is an emerging scientific field in which novel biological devices, such as molecules, genetic circuits or cells, are designed and constructed, or existing biological systems, such as microbes, are re-designed and engineered. A major goal is to produce valuable chemical products from simple, inexpensive and renewable starting materials in a sustainable manner. As with other engineering disciplines, CAD tools for simulating and designing global functions based upon local component behaviors are essential for constructing complex biological devices and systems. However, until this work, CAD-type models and simulation tools for biology have been very limited.

Identifying the relevant design parameters and defining the domains over which expected component behaviors are exerted have been key steps in the development of CAD tools for other engineering disciplines,” says Carothers, a bioengineer and lead author of the Science paper who is a member of Keasling’s research groups with both JBEI and the California Institute for Quantitative Biosciences. “We’ve applied generalizable engineering strategies for managing functional complexity to develop CAD-type simulation and modeling tools for designing RNA-based genetic control systems. Ultimately we’d like to develop CAD platforms for synthetic biology that rival the tools found in more established engineering disciplines, and we see this work as an important technical and conceptual step in that direction.”

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