Research

Addressing the grand challenges facing the world today requires innovative, interdisciplinary approaches. Biology is uniquely positioned to contribute to solutions for number of essential issues involving the environment and climate change, energy, global food supply and agriculture, and healthcare, among others. Within the Advanced Biomanufacturing Initiative, research is focused in several key thrusts which can enable to the development and commercialization of new products that fundamentally shape how these challenges are viewed. Spanning a range of both scale and biological complexity, the innovative products developed through the cutting edge research conducted at Rice offer unique solutions to challenging problems:

Molecules

Fuels, chemicals, and biologics: The industrial production of molecules using engineered microbes has emerged as an effective strategy to convert abundant feedstocks into useful fuels, chemicals, and biologics while leaving a low environmental footprint. The design of cellular production technologies for applications in pharmaceutical, industrial, and agricultural arenas can be quickly achieved by using the vast biological databases of information (metagenomic, functional genomic, and structural genomic) with computational search and modeling algorithms to design synthetic genetic networks that leverage the metabolic potential of all known organisms. The low cost of DNA synthesis allows these synthetic networks to be generated rapidly for introduction and optimization within many cellular systems. At Rice, groups are working to produce a variety of fuels, chemicals, and biologics with a wide array of applications.

Microorganisms and viruses

Environmental microbes, probiotics, cancer treatment, gene/cell therapy vectors: The diversity of microorganisms and viruses and the complexity of their interactions and dynamics within various micro- and macro-environments are essential for a multitude of processes involved in areas as distinct as global ecosystems and human health. Empowered by advances in genomics and proteomics, cell biology, and synthetic biology, we now have the potential to significantly improve our understanding of microbes’ role in the Earth biosphere and within different ecological settings. From understanding of biological communities and their dynamic behaviors in the environment to improve soil development, water quality, and crop yields, to the harnessing of virus machinery for disease treatment and drug delivery, understanding and engineering these organisms and interactions can be exploited to address many of the critical challenges of the 21st century (climate, food, water, and health). At Rice, groups are working to create a variety of advanced approaches to study and use microorganisms and viruses in complex environments.

Human cells and tissues

Cell therapy, regenerative medicine, tissue engineering: One of the leading advances in biomedicine today is the development of cell-based therapies for the treatment of human diseases. For example, chimeric antigen receptor (CAR)-T cells are being generated ex vivo from a patient’s own blood and then reinfused into the patient to treat cancer. The programmed CAR-T cells are able to seek out cancer cells and initiate a potent immune response against the tumors. Additionally, a patient’s own stem cells can also be isolated, modified, and reinfused into the patient to treat a variety of diseases affecting various organs, such as the heart, brain, and musculoskeletal system. The types of genetic modifications that can be performed on these biomedically relevant cells types have recently been revolutionized through the development of the CRISPR/Cas genome editing tools. In addition to single cell-based platforms, a number of complex tissues characterized by multiple cell types, scaffold materials, and architectures are being developed in order to tackle critical challenges in regenerative medicine and organ transplantation. At Rice, several groups are actively investigating innovative ways to improve the efficiency of engineering human cells and tissues.