The Virginia Bioinformatics Institute today announced that it is setting up a research group that will focus on the emerging field of synthetic biology.

The announcement coincides with the recent arrival of Dr. Jean Peccoud, a computational biologist from Pioneer Hi-Bred International, a fully owned subsidiary of DuPont, as well as the Second International Conference on Synthetic Biology, which takes place on May 20-22, 2006, at the University of California, Berkeley.

Synthetic biology involves the design and construction of new biological parts, devices, and systems as well as the redesign of existing, natural biological systems for useful purposes. The field has attracted much attention due to recent progress towards the goal of building chromosomes by significant remodeling of the genomes of bacterial organisms.

“The synthetic biology group at VBI will focus on the joint development of computer software and experimental methods that will allow for more quantitative models of artificial gene networks. This approach should help to make the design of new gene networks easier by making their behavior more predictable,” said Peccoud, associate professor at Virginia Bioinformatics Institute. “The Second International Conference on Synthetic Biology is an ideal opportunity for researchers to see first hand some of the rapid developments taking place in this field and the perfect forum to announce our new initiative in synthetic biology. The scope and strength of the program, which spans energy, chemistry, health, and materials, shows the potential impact expected by the scientific community from an engineering approach to biotechnology.”

Bruno Sobral, executive and scientific director of VBI, commented: “We see synthetic biology as a natural fit with our established expertise in systems biology. Top-down and bottom-up approaches to the study of biological systems require complementary resources and expertise.” He added: “Jean and his group will be looking at how we put together viable biological systems from some of the basic building blocks of life. I believe our strong emphasis on collaboration amongst faculty and our team-based approach to science will be strong assets in this endeavor.”

Initial projects will focus on developing methods to calibrate genetic parts. In much the same way as manufacturers document the properties of components used in the design of electronic circuits (for example resistors, transistors, capacitors), it is necessary to be able to quantify the biological functions implemented in DNA segments of the genome. This technology will help investigate the modular nature of biological regulatory networks by assessing the effects genetic background and the environment have on network dynamics. As part of this effort, the portability of artificial gene networks across different species will be explored. In addition to using cutting-edge molecular biology and imaging techniques to collect data, this project will rely on mathematical models known as genotype-to-phenotype maps that have been developed and used by geneticists and evolutionary biologists to analyze the effect of selection on evolution or breeding programs.

“We anticipate a wide range of applications for our synthetic biology research at VBI. One of the first projects that we will be looking at will be the development of a library of calibrated parts and artificial gene networks in a model system. We also envisage applications for synthetic biology in modeling the dynamics of viral infections, for example looking at how genetic variations of the influenza virus and its host might affect clinical outcomes,” Peccoud added.