Synthetic Biology Laboratory
Jeong Wook Lee (Chemical Engineering)
The Synthetic Biology Lab directed by Professor Jeong Wook Lee at the Department of Chemical Engineering, POSTECH, has developed technology that is able to distinguish the new COVID-19 variant Omicron in just 20 minutes, and disclosed this to the public on its website on Dec. 10, 2021. This breakthrough technology dramatically expedites the speed of variant screenings, which depend exclusively on full genome sequencing and take anywhere from three to five days of screening time.
The Lab is researching the mechanisms to control gene expression, including technology to rapidly screen for the Omicron variant. The life phenomena that support the ecosystem are determined by the timeline and the combination of gene expressions. The ability to willingly regulate gene expressions under the precise conditions we designate could enable us to create living organisms that fulfill intentional functions while regulating the internal functions of living organisms and even the phenomena of life itself.
An example of such technology at work is the one-pot diagnostic technology that looks to the viral RNA to diagnose COVID-19. While the real-time Reverse Transcription Polymerase Chain Reaction (rPT-PCR) is currently the standard in diagnostic technology, it requires the reverse transcription of RNA into DNA. The Lab’s technology, however, is more effective in that it uses the molecules that bind to specific RNAs and enzymes needed for reactions so that the reaction only glows in the presence of target RNA.
This one-pot diagnostic technology was featured in the September issue of Nature Biomedical Engineering last year, and was ranked in the top 1% of interest performance among all studies published from the same timeframe for this internationally-acclaimed academic journal. Currently, the lab is conducting research to commercialize this technology through a consortium with companies specializing in molecular diagnostics and raw material supplies, government-funded research institutes and contract clinical research organizations. According to Professor Lee, “This technology allows anyone to quickly identify viruses on-site and is especially noteworthy for its exceptional capability in detecting viral variants”.
Another primary research topic is the development of genetic circuits to control the metabolism of microbial cells. When these genetic circuits that normally respond to extracellular signals are engineered to be controlled by intracellular signals, this would open up the possibility of regulating the status of cells or controlling cellular metabolism. Researchers at the Lab have already created a microbial kill switch to instantly inhibit the growth of microbial cells in the absence of specific external signals. This technology uses the specific combination of signals as a sort of ‘security code’ ensuring that only the desired microbial cells grow.
The Lab finds appeal in synthetic biology for its power to translate what before could only be imagined into real and viable outcomes. “It’s such a euphoric experience for researchers to imagine what lies behind the cloak of visibility, explore logical solutions and prove the validity of their own hypothesis”, Professor Lee noted, adding “This becomes even more rewarding when our research outcomes aid in the betterment of our society”.
Head of Lab
School of Environmental Science and Engineering Building 324