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The Washington Research Foundation Fellowship

Rahul Brito, Bioengineering, 2012-13 WRFF

Rahul BritoEver since I came to the University of Washington, I knew I wanted to contribute to the battle against infectious diseases in the developing world. I have been researching in Professor Eric Klavins' Synthetic Biology/Self Organizing Systems laboratory since fall quarter of my sophomore year, and now have the opportunity to do just that, as my project is to build a prototype, ultra-sensitive detector in E. coli that could one day revolutionize the way we diagnose disease in low-resource settings. This project allows me to apply the genome engineering skills I have developed over the last two years while becoming engaged on a much more individual and personal level than ever before on a project with exciting implications. Furthermore, I receive incredible support and mentorship from my lab, which has allowed me to grow into the bioengineer I am today.

After college, I will work in the industry to continue to engineer diagnostics for infectious diseases. I anticipate augmenting this experience with graduate school training in my future. I want to extend my sincere thanks to the Washington Research Foundation for their generous support, which will enable me to continue to throw all my efforts into my research and professional enrichment.

Mentor: Eric Klavin, Electrical Engineering

Project Title: An ultra-sensitive biomolecular detector for low-cost diagnostics

Abstract: Modern-day diagnostics do not meet the needs of low-resource settings due to: 1) slowness in providing results, 2) dependence on electricity, chemical reagents, and trained clinicians, 3) high cost, and 4) high sensitivity threshold. The result is frequent improper diagnosis or false negatives, which can increase the rate of evolution of drug resistance and the rate of patient mortality. There is therefore a pressing need for diagnostics that are inexpensive, rapid, and accurate. The field of synthetic biology holds much promise in this area due to the ease of genomic re-engineering and inexpensive cost of replicating single-cell organism like E. coli and Saccharomyces cerevisiae. As many genomic architectures can function as detectors, a prototype detector will be engineered in E. coli in three phases. First, candidate architectures will be modeled in silico to explore their response over a wide parameter space. Second, these architectures will be constructed and characterized in vivo to determine sensitivity, time to produce output, and ease of output readability. Each detection architecture will be a co-culture, with each strain sensing a specific input molecule. Finally, these detection architectures will be combined with growth control and self-destructive altruism mechanisms that will allow the strain that senses its input to outgrow and induce apoptosis in the other strain, therefore amplifying an output signal to one visible with the naked eye. This prototype detector will hold great promise for one day producing a synthetic, multi-strain diagnostic feasible in low-resource settings.