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The Official Oxford University Society of Synthetic Biology

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In Hilary term 2016 SynBio.Oxford begun running a journal club.

This page records the papers that were presented, and links to other things that were discussed.


Max Jamilly presented Multiplexed barcoded CRISPR-Cas9 screening enabled by CombiGEM (slides).


The orchestrated action of genes controls complex biological phenotypes, yet the systematic discovery of gene and drug combinations that modulate these phenotypes in human cells is labor intensive and challenging to scale. Here, we created a platform for the massively parallel screening of barcoded combinatorial gene perturbations in human cells and translated these hits into effective drug combinations. This technology leverages the simplicity of the CRISPR-Cas9 system for multiplexed targeting of specific genomic loci and the versatility of combinatorial genetics en masse (CombiGEM) to rapidly assemble barcoded combinatorial genetic libraries that can be tracked with high-throughput sequencing. We applied CombiGEM-CRISPR to create a library of 23,409 barcoded dual guide-RNA (gRNA) combinations and then perform a high-throughput pooled screen to identify gene pairs that inhibited ovarian cancer cell growth when they were targeted. We validated the growth-inhibiting effects of specific gene sets, including epigenetic regulators KDM4C/BRD4 and KDM6B/BRD4, via individual assays with CRISPR-Cas–based knockouts and RNA-interference–based knockdowns. We also tested small-molecule drug pairs directed against our pairwise hits and showed that they exerted synergistic antiproliferative effects against ovarian cancer cells. We envision that the CombiGEM-CRISPR platform will be applicable to a broad range of biological settings and will accelerate the systematic identification of genetic combinations and their translation into novel drug combinations that modulate complex human disease phenotypes.

In the discussion, the recent paper Structures of a CRISPR-Cas9 R-loop complex primed for DNA cleavage was also mentioned. Abstract:

Bacterial adaptive immunity and genome engineering involving the CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats)–associated (Cas) protein Cas9 begin with RNA-guided DNA unwinding to form an RNA-DNA hybrid and a displaced DNA strand inside the protein. The role of this R-loop structure in positioning each DNA strand for cleavage by the two Cas9 nuclease domains is unknown. We determine molecular structures of the catalytically active Streptococcus pyogenes Cas9 R-loop that show the displaced DNA strand located near the RuvC nuclease domain active site. These protein-DNA interactions, in turn, position the HNH nuclease domain adjacent to the target DNA strand cleavage site in a conformation essential for concerted DNA cutting. Cas9 bends the DNA helix by 30°, providing the structural distortion needed for R-loop formation.


William Taverner presented a 2016 paper, Addicting diverse bacteria to a noncanonical amino acid (slides).


Engineered orthogonal translation systems have greatly enabled the expansion of the genetic code using noncanonical amino acids (NCAAs). However, the impact of NCAAs on organismal evolution remains unclear, in part because it is difficult to force the adoption of new genetic codes in organisms. By reengineering TEM-1 β-lactamase to be dependent on a NCAA, we maintained bacterial NCAA dependence for hundreds of generations without escape.


Robbie Oppenheimer presented a 2006 paper by Anthony Forster and George Church - Towards synthesis of a minimal cell (slides).

In the course of the discussion, people referred to several other papers.

Metamaterials are artificial substances that are structurally engineered to have properties not typically found in nature. To date, almost all metamaterials have been made from inorganic materials such as silicon and copper, which have unusual electromagnetic or acoustic properties that allow them to be used, for example, as invisible cloaks, superlenses or super absorbers for sound. Here, we show that metamaterials with unusual mechanical properties can be prepared using DNA as a building block. We used a polymerase enzyme to elongate DNA chains and weave them non-covalently into a hydrogel. The resulting material, which we term a meta-hydrogel, has liquid-like properties when taken out of water and solid-like properties when in water. Moreover, upon the addition of water, and after complete deformation, the hydrogel can be made to return to its original shape. The meta-hydrogel has a hierarchical internal structure and, as an example of its potential applications, we use it to create an electric circuit that uses water as a switch.

Many populations live in environments subject to frequent biotic and abiotic changes. Nonetheless, it is interesting to ask whether an evolving population’s mean fitness can increase indefinitely, and potentially without any limit, even in a constant environment. A recent study showed that fitness trajectories of Escherichia coli populations over 50 000 generations were better described by a power-law model than by a hyperbolic model. According to the power-law model, the rate of fitness gain declines over time but fitness has no upper limit, whereas the hyperbolic model implies a hard limit. Here, we examine whether the previously estimated power-law model predicts the fitness trajectory for an additional 10 000 generations. To that end, we conducted more than 1100 new competitive fitness assays. Consistent with the previous study, the power-law model fits the new data better than the hyperbolic model. We also analysed the variability in fitness among populations, finding subtle, but significant, heterogeneity in mean fitness. Some, but not all, of this variation reflects differences in mutation rate that evolved over time. Taken together, our results imply that both adaptation and divergence can continue indefinitely—or at least for a long time—even in a constant environment.

A crucial transition in the origin of life was the emergence of an informational polymer capable of self-replication and its compartmentalization within protocellular structures. We show that the physicochemical properties of ice, a simple medium widespread on a temperate early Earth, could have mediated this transition prior to the advent of membraneous protocells. Ice not only promotes the activity of an RNA polymerase ribozyme but also protects it from hydrolytic degradation, enabling the synthesis of exceptionally long replication products. Ice furthermore relieves the dependence of RNA replication on prebiotically implausible substrate concentrations, while providing quasicellular compartmentalization within the intricate microstructure of the eutectic phase. Eutectic ice phases had previously been shown to promote the de novo synthesis of nucleotide precursors, as well as the condensation of activated nucleotides into random RNA oligomers. Our results support a wider role for ice as a predisposed environment, promoting all the steps from prebiotic synthesis to the emergence of RNA self-replication and precellular Darwinian evolution.

The ribosome is a ribonucleoprotein machine responsible for protein synthesis. In all kingdoms of life it is composed of two subunits, each built on its own ribosomal RNA (rRNA) scaffold. The independent but coordinated functions of the subunits, including their ability to associate at initiation, rotate during elongation, and dissociate after protein release, are an established model of protein synthesis. Furthermore, the bipartite nature of the ribosome is presumed to be essential for biogenesis, since dedicated assembly factors keep immature ribosomal subunits apart and prevent them from translation initiation1. Free exchange of the subunits limits the development of specialized orthogonal genetic systems that could be evolved for novel functions without interfering with native translation. Here we show that ribosomes with tethered and thus inseparable subunits (termed Ribo-T) are capable of successfully carrying out protein synthesis. By engineering a hybrid rRNA composed of both small and large subunit rRNA sequences, we produced a functional ribosome in which the subunits are covalently linked into a single entity by short RNA linkers. Notably, Ribo-T was not only functional in vitro, but was also able to support the growth of Escherichia coli cells even in the absence of wild-type ribosomes. We used Ribo-T to create the first fully orthogonal ribosome–messenger RNA system, and demonstrate its evolvability by selecting otherwise dominantly lethal rRNA mutations in the peptidyl transferase centre that facilitate the translation of a problematic protein sequence. Ribo-T can be used for exploring poorly understood functions of the ribosome, enabling orthogonal genetic systems, and engineering ribosomes with new functions.

Background: When processing microarray data sets, we recently noticed that some gene names were being changed inadvertently to non-gene names.

Results: A little detective work traced the problem to default date format conversions and floating-point format conversions in the very useful Excel program package. The date conversions affect at least 30 gene names; the floating-point conversions affect at least 2,000 if Riken identifiers are included. These conversions are irreversible; the original gene names cannot be recovered.

Conclusions: Users of Excel for analyses involving gene names should be aware of this problem, which can cause genes, including medically important ones, to be lost from view and which has contaminated even carefully curated public databases. We provide work-arounds and scripts for circumventing the problem.