What is Synthetic Biology?

What is Synthetic Biology

What is Synthetic Biology?

by Vince Nero, NYC Tech Connect

What is synthetic biology? In essence, it is the creation or modification of life using synthetic materials. By studying and manipulating genetic code, scientists can create or modify organisms that do amazing things. We will be having a free Riverside Chat on Synthetic Biology on Feb. 4. Seating is limited, so register soon.

You can think of it like a GMO, or Genetic Modified Organisms, which replaces parts of an organism using parts that already exist somewhere else. But, in Synthetic Biology the parts that are modified are synthetically produced, and do not exist in nature. 

Every living thing has a special genetic code that makes them do what they do. The hard part is figuring out the code and manipulating it. But, just as the home computer evolved from the megaton machines from the 70′s, home biology-modeling software is becoming a reality. Scientists and researchers are no longer encumbered by expensive lab space and research equipment, making the future of synthetic biology very exciting.

Critics, however, are quick to point out that these new synthetically-engineered organisms may pose a danger to our current ecosystem. They make it clear that there needs to be a dialogue between leaders in the field to determine limits and/or restrictions on the uses of synthetic biology.

Like it or not, it is gaining momentum everyday. Here’s a look at some of the advancements that scientists are looking at in this field:

1. Glowing Trees


By synthesizing a part of the genome that can make plants glow, scientists/founders Antony Evans and Dr. Kyle Taylor have successfully funded a Kickstarter for their company, Glowing Plant, to grow and sell luminescent plants. The possible future of the product could be the replacement of street lamps with glowing trees.

Another company, Bioglow, from St. Louis, is doing a very similar project and is auctioning off their glowing plants starting today!


2. Fungus Styrofoam: Biodegradable Styrofoam substitute

organofoam - Synthetic Biology

Students from Cornell University, and winners of the iGEM competition, have created a highly sought after substitute to Styrofoam. The student’s company, Organofoam, does this by engineering a form of fungus. Since Styrofoam is petroleum-based, it releases dangerous toxins when broken down. Government restrictions are causing food companies to seek other forms of packaging, which could make this very useful.


3. Glowing Bacteria

E.chromi - Synthetic Biology

E. Chromi, a collaboration project from Cambridge University, has engineered a form a bacteria to change colors when it detects certain pollutants present. Also winners of iGEM competition,  their product can program this bacteria to do a wide variety of things, like tell you if E. Coli is present in your food. They’ve even envisioned a future where one could eat this bacteria like yogurt, and if you had a disease, your bodily ‘output’ would be colored!

As you can see, the applications of synthetic biology are quite revolutionary. To learn more about Synthetic Biology, register for our Riverside Chat on February 4th. We will be featuring Nancy J. Kelley, President & CEO, Nancy J. Kelley & Associates, Jef Boeke, Director, Institute for Systems Genetics, NYU Langone Medical Center, Andrew Hessel, Distinguished Researcher, Autodesk and Paula Olsiewski, Program Director, Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.


photo credit: Tatcher a Hainu





Filed under General

Jan. 7, 2014 Riverside Chat Review


Jan. 7, 2014 Riverside Chat Review

By Vince Nero, NYC Tech Connect

Last night’s Riverside Chat featured a few speakers from the NYCRIN, also known as the New York City Regional Innovation Node. The basic idea of the program is to teach research scientists how to commercialize a technology. More importantly, it seems, is that the program forces these scientists out of the comfort of their lab, thrusts them into the business world, and transforms them into entrepreneurs.

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Filed under EIR for NYC

The Dating Game: Preparing Your Investor Pitch


The Dating Game: Preparing Your Investor Pitch

Dr. Elma Hawkins

Earlier this year, I wrote a post on how to recognize when investors are “just not that into you.” In business, as in dating, sometimes the chemistry is off and it’s better to simply move on.  But for better or for worse, chemistry is only part of the equation: proper “courtship” is also essential to getting into an investor’s pocket.

Last week, I came across this fun, but insightful article based on the premise that “there isn’t much difference between a bad pickup line and a poorly formulated investment pitch.” Follow this advice, and you’ll stand a much better chance of rounding the bases with investors.



About the original author:



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photo credit: Victor1558

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Interview with Marc Tessier-Lavigne






Interview with Marc Tessier-Lavigne, President of The Rockefeller University

by Howard Johnson
Marc Tessier-Lavigne was elected the tenth president of The Rockefeller University by its Board of Trustees, following an international search. He began in March, 2011.

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Becoming a Road Warrior


Becoming a Road Warrior

by Jerry Korten

Read on if you are young and running a startup, or if you are in charge of sales or technology. If you have spent a lifetime on the road you can probably skip this one. I thought my last blog for the season might be about what life is like on the road and some tricks and coping mechanisms for those of you starting out. Frequent time on the road is tough: it takes you away from your spouse or family and away from those things you like to do to relax and it can get you in kind of a generally angry mood. This opinion is based on a sample of one (me) plus the input of buddies.

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What it takes to be CEO



What it takes to be CEO: Medivation CEO David Hung on teamwork, technology and expecting the unexpected

by Dr. Elma Hawkins

Strategy.  Decision-making.  Answering to the board of directors.  These are things that any CEO can expect to do. But according to David Hung, founder, president and CEO of Medivation, Inc., it’s how CEOs handle the things they don’t expect that makes the biggest difference.

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Paying Forward


Paying Forward

by Jerry Korten


One of the things you need to cultivate as an entrepreneur is your network. You need friends and they need you too. You don’t yet know why and neither do they. But usually getting connected to somebody is what you or your friend needs. This can be for business reasons: you’re looking for a good sales person who knows the disposable business, or you need a good design house. Or you may need a connection to help you find funding for your startup. In all cases, you won’t get introduced to many people if you haven’t demonstrated that you are willing to help others get connected, too.

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Interview with Dr. Willa Appel of NYSBC


Interview with Dr. Willa Appel, Executive Director of the New York Structural Biology Center

by Howard B. Johnson

I met with Willa Appel recently at the Upper Manhattan offices of the New York Structural Biology Center.   The NYSBC is one of the most advanced sites in the world for instrumentation for structural biology – one of the most important scientific frontiers in biomedical research and drug development. It provides the detailed structure of molecules that are essential for life and the targets of drug therapies.  NYSBC represents a breakthrough model for shared resources in the United States.  Founded in 2002 by nine eminent New York academic research institutions to provide cutting-edge instrumentation to their faculties, the NYSBC has a professional staff of 30 serving more than 100 Principal Investigators. NYSBC also offers its services to outside academics and for-profit research companies.

In addition to providing resources and services, NYSBC is an intellectual center for structural biology known throughout the world.  It conducts in-house research and sponsors multi-institutional research collaborations, symposia and conferences.  It alsooffers accredited graduate-level courses and training workshops available to students from all 9 member institutions such as:  Cryoelectron Microscopy of Macromolecular Assemblies, Biomolecular NMR Spectroscopy, and NMR Spectroscopy of Macromolecules.

Willa Appel was one of the founders and chief organizers of the NYSBC.  She has been with the NYSBC since its inception and serves as its Executive Director.

I recently asked Willa a few questions of potential importance to New York City bioscience entrepreneurs.


1. Tell us about what NYSBC has brought to New York’s scientific community.

Having advanced resources available to visualize proteins in three dimensions has enabled NY researchers to pursue projects that otherwise would not have been possible.

One example is the study of the nuclear pore complex via Cryoelectron Microscopy that provides insights into this important transport activity in and out of the nucleus that is implicated in certain types of cancer and developmental defects. Another is research to understand why Parkinsons and Alzheimer’s diseases develop; this work uses advanced atomic resolution spectroscopic methods to visualize the proteins that are associated with the development of those diseases. These are two among hundreds of research projects that have been made possible by our advanced instrumentation.

Each of the different technologies of structural biology provides detailed images of proteins which provide insight into how these critical molecules function.  At NYSBC, we are fortunate to have the three major technologies of structural biology under one roof.  These technologies are complementary and having all three allows us to determine protein structures at the atomic level of resolution – via x-ray crystallography and Nuclear Magnetic Resonance Spectroscopy – as well as the macro level through Cryoelectron Microscopy which entails visualizing molecular molecular machines or assemblies.


2. Tell us about the leading-edge instrumentation at the NYSBC.

Nuclear Magnetic Resonance Spectroscopy (NMR) uses extremely powerful magnets to analyze the arrangements and movements of atoms within a protein.  It’s a technology similar to MRIs in hospitals but in NMR, the magnets are far more powerful and the focus is far smaller – individual proteins as opposed to organs. The data generated are then modeled into three-dimensional images of a biomolecule at the atomic level. The value of this information is that it provides exquisite detail of protein interactions, the behavior of molecules as they move, and drug interactions with molecules.  All this makes it possible to understand molecular behavior in normal and pathological states.  NYSBC’s NMR facility is the most advanced in the world.

NYSBC’s expert staff operates nine NMRs including: two at 900 megahertz (MHz); three at 800 MHz; one at 750 MHz and one at 700 MHz – all equipped with cryoprobes to increase sensitivity.  We have recently installed a high-field Dynamic Nuclear Polarization spectrometer, the first commercially available in the U.S., whose technology may revolutionize the field by increasing sensitivity by several orders of magnitude.  NYSBC’s NMR facility is the most advanced in the world.

X-ray Crystallography uses light a billion times more powerful than that of the sun, generated by a synchrotron, to reveal the architecture of molecules in crystal form at atomic scale.   NYSBC operates two synchrotron beamlines at the Brookhaven National Laboratory (BNL) on Long Island.  We are building a new, next-generation next-generation beamline, “NYX”, that will exploit the increase energy of the new $1 billion synchrotron being completed at BNL. We expect that NYX will be the most advanced beamline for x-ray crystallography in the world.  Of course, we also have ‘home source’ generators at our main facility in Manhattan that are suitable for crystal screening and some structure determination.

Cryolectron Microscopy (CEM) uses electrons to reveal images of individual molecules and molecular assemblies.  In CEM, the samples are frozen to preserve them in their native states — unlike conventional electron microscopes that require samples to be fixed and stained. The electrons illuminate the sample much as light does in an ordinary microscope, but the electromagnetic lenses magnify the image up to one million fold.  CEM is highly complementary to NMR and X-ray Crystallography as it can create images of transient, large, multi-molecular complexes.  NYSBC operates one of the most advanced CEM facilities in the U.S.

Its instrumentation includes: one 300 kilovolt (kV) microscope, two 200 kV microscopes, and one 120 kV microscope all with field emission guns, and a Dual-Beam Scanning Electron and  Focused Ion Beam microscope, that can  produce 3D reconstructions of tissue from 1-10 microns.  The latter is of especial interest to cell biologists, especially neuroscientists who want to quickly visualize the pathway through a cell.

The NYSBC also operates a high throughput protein production facility that uses robotic methods to produce hundreds of functional integral membrane and other proteins in bacterial, insect and mammalian expression systems. One great advantage we have is that we can make multiple proteins in parallel, simultaneously testing the benefits of different conditions and different vectors.  This is a different scale of operations from most academic labs that are capable of making proteins do not use high throughput techniques. Many other labs can’t make proteins at all and simply buy them from commercial vendors and these are often low quality.  Because NYSBC produces high quality proteins rapidly, our facility is increasingly asked to do work for outside research labs.


3. Who are your Member Institutions?  How do they access the resources at the NYSBC?

Albert Einstein College of Medicine, City University of New York, Columbia University, New York University, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, Mount Sinai School of Medicine, State University of New York, The Rockefeller University, Wadsworth Center, New York Department of Health, Weill Medical College of Cornell University.  Faculty from all of these institutions can access our instrumentation and our staff.  Right now, we provide resources to more than 100 laboratories working on a range of problems.  A few examples of these research efforts include: developing inhibitors to prevent HIV from entering the cell; working on receptors that are critical to the cardiovascular system and hypertension; and understanding why morphological defects in mitochondrial membranes explain the symptom of Barth Syndrome.  All of this work relies on access to the New York Structural Biology Center and its scientific staff.


4. Do you conduct your own research?  What does this research focus on?  Do you patent your inventions?

Yes, we do. We have a great deal of expertise on membrane proteins that are critical for effective drug development thanks to large, multiyear grants to NYSBC for work on these challenging proteins.  Our Scientific Director, Dr. Wayne Hendrickson, is the Principal Investigator of the New York Consortium on Membrane Protein Structure (NYCOMPS) and has 8 full time staff dedicated to it.  Another multiyear NIH grant uses Cryoelectron Microscopy to determine the 2-D structures of membrane proteins, also with dedicated staff. A separate research group at NYSBC has made major advances in the understanding of acetylcholinesterase, an enzyme critical to human nervous system and a target of chemical weapons such as Sarin, and we have patented those results.


5. Do you work with the private sector as well?  Tell us about how New York City bioscience entrepreneurs can take advantage of your instrumentation and expertise.

Yes, we opened our doors this past year to the private sector.  We have structural biology equipment and expertise that rival or surpass what many large pharmaceutical companies; these resources are far more advanced than what bioscience entrepreneurs might have. We offer our services to these groups. While some may just need access to instrumentation, most have particular projects where they would like our expertise. Usually, a project relates to drug development where seeing exactly where and how a protein binds to a target is extremely useful for drug design and optimization. Our expertise in membrane proteins is also a big draw since so many drugs involve them.   We encourage bioscience entrepreneurs to contact us if they’d like to hear about our services.  I should add that when these projects create new intellectual property, the entrepreneur or company engaging us maintains ownership.


6. How have you raised your funding?

When they joined the consortium, each of our Member Institutions made a capital contribution that in the aggregate was about $10 million.  Since then, we have raised another $65+ million for new instrumentation and housing the new equipment. Our facility now comprises 45,000 square feet. Most funding has come through grants, primarily peer reviewed grants and contracts.


7. Can you tell us about how your site was retrofitted to handle your instrumentation?  It sounds like an architectural engineering feat.

The gut renovation of our first building was pretty special.  It was a former gymnasium — basketball court and swimming pool — on the City College campus that had been vacant for years.  The engineering challenge was placing four high field magnets (NMRs) in the old basketball court without the magnets interfering with each other while minimizing vibrationwhich these instruments can’t tolerate. We ended up placing each magnet on a solid concrete column that extended 30 feet from the floor of the former basketball court down through the swimming pool and then down to bedrock.  Each column required 600 tons of concrete.  The columns look like a cross between ‘Star Wars’ and James Bond.


Entrepreneurial Profiles: Dorm Room Fund



An Nguyen, a member of NYC Tech Connect’s Entrepreneurial Scientist Advisory Panel, is our connection to one of New York’s invaluable resources for the startup community, Dorm Room Fund. As an Investment Team member, she has helped a multitude of entrepreneurs get off their feet and running in New York City.

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When the Going Gets Tough – Five Tips for Communicating in Times of Crisis


When the Going Gets Tough: Five Tips for Communicating in Times of Crisis

By Dr. Elma Hawkins


“Hope for the best, but be prepared for the worst.”

Good words to live by, but when it comes to crisis communications planning, too few companies actually do. The reasons for this are natural.  As I’ve said before on this blog, optimism is essential for entrepreneurs, and with all the things you need to do to make your venture run smoothly, the last thing you want to think about is what to do if things don’t go according to plan.

But at some point or another, you will have a crisis — big or small, it’s a matter of when, not if.  And when that time comes, how you communicate with your stakeholders will have a major impact on whether you sink or swim. In my experience, how a company fares during crisis largely boils down to preparation.  To help you shape up your own crisis communications strategy, here are five common pitfalls to avoid — and five best practices to help you navigate crises as smoothly as possible.

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