Grant Murphy gives captivating presentation on protein engineering, synthetic biology

What do you think of when you hear protein engineering? Do you imagine strange laboratory experiments creating man-made life forms or reconstructing the genetic makeup of creatures? How about synthetic biology? Perhaps you picture a mock ecosystem, where scientists test the likelihood of human survival on Mars.

While these words may sound like something out of a science fiction novel, they are certainly not fiction. Protein engineering and synthetic biology are very real and influential strategies that researchers, businessmen and political figures have recognized as applicable and effective for the progression of biotechnology.

“It is an interesting topic that a lot of people are involved in,” said early college junior Emerson Santiago. “I’d heard about it, but I didn’t really understand it before.”

It is not easy to take these complex processes and present them in a way that is both entertaining and informative for nonscience majors, but a presentation on April 9, as part of the Science and Math Division Speaker Series, made the topic easily enjoyable and understandable for Guilford students.

The exhibition was alluringly titled ”Bootstrapping Evolution Using Protein Engineering and Synthetic Biology,” and was presented by Grant Murphy ‘05. Murphy double-majored in biology and chemistry. After Guilford, Murphy received his Ph.D. from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and now works as a postdoctoral fellow and lecturer at Princeton University’s Hecht Lab.

“Grant Murphy … gave a fascinating and impressive presentation on protein engineering,” said Professor of Biology Lynn Moseley.

Murphy uses protein engineering and synthetic biology in his research to substitute bacterium genes with proteins engineered from computational modeling.

“His talk about computer simulations of how proteins fold was really enjoyable,” said senior Eric Barnett. “They use a system where they connect a protein to thousands and thousands of computers to do a bunch of folding all at the same time. They also have this program that they’ve designed and refined over the years to predict protein structure.”

Murphy described how predicting protein structure could be used to engineer the metabolism of various species like algae, yeast and bacteria to create fuels that are photosynthetic or carbon-based.

“Synthetic biology combines the experimental techniques and functional components … of molecular biology, chemistry and physics with the … design principles of engineering,” simplified Murphy in an email interview. “Using synthetic biology, we can build simplified model systems to improve our understanding of natural biological systems. However, the true significance of synthetic biology is in its ability to generate new biological systems … systems not developed by natural evolution.”

There is no way to ignore the fact that this extraordinary research has taken biology engineering to the next level, but it can still improve with help from all of us.

“Protein engineering and synthetic biology are both young fields with lots of room for growth and with the ability to tackle big problems like global food supply, fuel availability, clean fuel and the development of new therapeutics,” said Murphy. “We need scientists and nonscientists to take an interest in emerging fields like synthetic biology.”