Microbial communities are found in virtually every unique environmental niche on earth. In these communities, microbes perform a host of functions that are vital for human and environmental health, ranging from microbes in our gut that help us digest foods and produce vitamins, all the way to microbes in the oceans that help degrade crude oil contamination. Microbes can also pose significant threats—pathogenic bacteria are responsible for a variety of infectious diseases. In general, understanding and leveraging microbial processes has massive therapeutic, industrial and biotechnological implications. Indeed, microbes and microbial communities can be engineered using gene circuits, or pieces of DNA (or members of a community) arranged in a purposeful way to achieve a desired function. However, a key challenge in microbial engineering is achieving robust and reproducible function given the inherent complexity and variability of biological systems. Microbial engineering therefore depends as much on understanding the underlying biomolecular components as it does on adequate mathematical models of the desired behaviors; this intersection between microbiology, mathematical modeling, and biomolecular engineering is the cutting edge of systems and synthetic biology within chemical engineering. These approaches are of particular interest in the study of antibiotic resistance; ongoing work in the department focuses on leveraging biological insights and engineering approaches to design microbial communities and therapeutic strategies capable of slowing the spread of resistance genes.
Active Faculty / Research Areas
Lopatkin: Systems biology, synthetic biology, computational biology, horizontal gene transfer, bacterial population dynamics, microbial metabolism, antibiotic resistance