Research Area

Synthetic Biology, Engineering Biology, Biomaterials and Protein Engineering

Research Interests

Engineering Biology, Synthetic Biology Approaches to New Materials, Genetically Encoded Click Chemistry, Directed Evolution, Protein Topology Engineering, Optogenetics and Biosensing

Research Description

Engineer Biology for New Materials

The creation of macromolecular systems with precise control over their structural and functional properties constitutes a fundamental challenge for molecular engineering. Development of the ability to construct complex biomacromolecular architectures will provide a solution to this challenge. In the past few years, my research group at HKUST has been dedicated to a unique synthetic biology approach for designing advanced protein architectures and soft materials. The central idea is that we use artificially designed genes to direct the synthesis of recombinant proteins or protein-like macromolecules in bacterial cells; the resulting proteins self-assemble into high-order structures, eventually leading to the formation of macroscopic materials like hydrogels, for potential applications ranging from 3D cell culturing to tissue regeneration and chemical separation. In addition, the controlled assembly of protein molecules has also provided us with some exciting tools for studying protein phase separation, particularly in neurons—an important biological phenomenon with wide-ranging impact on biological regulation and disease pathogenesis.

“Smart” Materials Enabled by Protein Topology Engineering

Those important biomacromolecules in the Central Dogma, including DNA, RNA and protein, are all synthesized by cellular machinery as linear biopolymers, among which some RNAs and proteins may subsequently fold into compact 3D structures and give rise to functions—which are sometimes accompanied with certain chemical modifications. A fundamental question we are trying to tackle is: Can we ask the cellular machinery to synthesize non-linear protein polymers (Protein Topology Engineering)? If so, we may have access to new materials with properties that have never been explored before. We have been working on this fundamental question through the combined use of synthetic biology and genetically encoded click chemistry; such endeavors have already led to the creation of various exciting protein materials, such as photoresponsive protein hydrogels, that have opened up enormous opportunities for materials biology, regenerative medicine and chemical engineering.