Funding available for a PhD scholarship on synthetic tissues

Applications are invited for a PhD studentship to work in the Gobbo Group in the School of Chemistry at the University of Bristol. The position is for UK/EU student and is funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), with funding for 42 months. The starting date is October 2020, and the research aims to implement the first synthetic tissues with collective information-processing functions.

The project:

BioCHIP: synthetic tissues with collective information-processing functions

The past decade has seen researchers in the field of bottom-up synthetic biology try to fill the gap between biology and chemistry to better understand how the non-living becomes alive. To do this, attempts have been made to construct what are called protocells. These are cell-like entities created from scratch using a toolbox of molecules, materials, and chemical reactions.[1] While many research teams are currently focusing on advancing the biochemical complexity of individual protocells, we believe that the future of this research field will see the use of protocells as building blocks to generate unprecedented adaptive and autonomous forms of biomaterials that will be capable of emulating living tissues.[2] The Gobbo Group therefore aims to pioneer new research frontiers in bottom-up synthetic biology by developing the first experimental methodologies to organise millions of protocells into self-standing protocellular materials (see Figure) that are stable in water, highly modular, and engineered with specific internal architectures for information processing tasks.

Figure: Fluorescence microscopy image of a protocellular material in the shape of a triangle generated from a binary population of RITC-labelled azide-functionalised protocells (red fluorescence) and FITC-labelled cyclooctyne-functionalised protocells (green fluorescence) that reacted through interfacial bio-orthogonal chemistry. The protocellular material was cut to measure its thickness. The inset shows a magnified area of the protocell sheet.

More specifically, the PhD student will work towards the implementation of the first protocellular material-based BioCHIP that can sense, process and respond to DNA signals received in input from the bulk solution. The student will tackle the following exciting challenges of BioCHIP design and synthetic construction: 1) the development of methodologies for the light-induced controlled release of DNA strands from protocell building blocks; 2) the study of how chemicals diffuse within a protocellular material; and 3) the implementation of logic bio-circuits within a protocellular material based on toehold-mediated DNA strand displacement. To achieve these goals we will work in collaboration with the research group of Dr Thomas Gorochowski (School of Biological Sciences, www.biocomputelab.org) who is an expert in the design of gene and DNA-based computational circuitry and will act as a secondary supervisor.

The development of BioCHIP will set a new paradigm in DNA computing and minimal cell technology and potentially lead to important applications in microbioreactor technology, tissue engineering, and personalised therapy.

The student will receive training in synthetic organic chemistry, polymer chemistry, soft-materials chemistry, DNA technology, and computer programming. The project will involve training and use of the following characterisation methods:

  1. NMR, FT-IR, UV-Vis and fluorescence spectroscopies
  2. MALDI-TOF mass spectrometry
  3. Gel permeation chromatography
  4. Brightfield and fluorescence microscopy
  5. Programming in Python
  6. Modelling of DNA hybridisation
  7. Development of DNA strand displacement computational circuits

Finally, the student will receive mentoring in the development of scientific communication, problem solving, and project management skills.

References:
[1]       Stano, P. Is Research on “Synthetic Cells” Moving to the Next Level? Life-Basel 9, doi:10.3390/life9010003 (2018).
[2]       Gobbo, P. et al. Programmed assembly of synthetic protocells into thermoresponsive prototissues. Nature Materials 17, 1145, doi:10.1038/s41563-018-0183-5 (2018).

Candidate requirements:
We are looking for a highly motivated and enthusiastic student, with excellent organizational and communication skills and a passion for working in a vibrant interdisciplinary environment. Applicants must have obtained, or be about to obtain, a First or high Upper Second Class UK degree, or the equivalent qualifications gained outside the UK, in a chemistry or related subject. A strong undergraduate-level understanding of synthetic chemistry, molecule characterisation, and/or polymer chemistry is a prerequisite. A basic knowledge of computer programming would be advantageous.

Get in touch:
If you have any queries or would like to discuss projects and ideas, we encourage you to make an informal enquiry to Dr Gobbo (pierangelo.gobbo@bristol.ac.uk).

How to apply:
Please make an online application for this project at http://www.bris.ac.uk/pg-howtoapply. Please select “BioCHIP: synthetic tissues with collective information-processing functions” on the Programme Choice page. You will be prompted to enter details of the studentship in the Funding and Research Details sections of the form.

Potential candidates are encouraged to apply as soon as possible, as we may stop recruitment for this position before the deadline if a suitable candidate is found.

Funding Notes:
The studentship will cover UK/EU tuition fees, a training support fee and a stipend (£15,285 p.a. for 2019/20, updated each year by UKRI) for 4 years. Applicants who are classed as Overseas for tuition fee purposes may be considered if they can supply the difference between UK/EU and Overseas fees.

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