Sharing MCB Science: The complex role of chromatin in transcriptional regulation

A central question in biology is how a single genome can give rise to the hundreds of distinct cell types that compose an organism. To achieve this task, the genome must be tightly and selectively regulated. Much of this regulation is thought to come from chromatin, a layer of proteins that cover and package our DNA or genomic code. In a recent report that was the cover article for Cell, Dr. Ahmad S. Khalil and his team of researchers at Boston University describe an experimental platform to engineer, design, and control this layer of regulation, which is distinct to eukaryotes. The team engineered molecular tools that could bind specific locations in the genomic code and alter the local structural and chemical properties of chromatin, thus affecting the expression of genes. This research introduces a new framework to engineer cells in organisms like yeast and mammalian cells. It also supports the use of synthetic biology approaches to control and harness this complex regulatory chromatin layer for future uses in disease intervention, biopharmaceutical production, and basic research.

This research study is the product of a collaborative effort between Dr. Ahmad Khalil and fellow Boston University colleague Dr. James Collins. It is supported by Khalil’s CAREER award from the Division of Molecular and Cellular Biosciences. The CAREER Award Program is a Foundation-wide activity that offers the National Science Foundation’s most prestigious awards in support of junior faculty who exemplify the role of teacher-scholars through outstanding research, excellent education and the integration of education and research within the context of the mission of their organizations. The Khalil group has a history of introducing undergraduate and high school students to synthetic biology through summer research, in addition to hosting regular outreach and education activities focused on molecular biology and microfluidics.