Cellular Engineering       


Cellular Engineering - overview

Understanding the relationships among cell shape, state and function

Cells are bristling with an array of sensitive and specific biosensors. The cell interior is full of signaling pathways that response to environmental and internal metabolic state. For example sugar and oxygen alter mitochondrial structure. Extracellular mechanical stress alters focal adhesions, the connection between the cell and the extracellular substrate.

The Cellular Engineering group is interested in morphological changes inside the cell, particularly with organelle morphology. Organelles are containers of chemical reactions. Organelles' morphology are connected to how cells sense. However there is little understanding of how cells modulate their morphology in response to specific environmental stresses. Cell morphology is a proxy for cell state and type. We would like to better understand how the chemicals in the cell direct the morphology of the cell, to map the molecular phase space to the morphology phase space.

Still image taken from video captured with a lensless microscope invented at IBM Research-Almaden. The shadows of Stentors (one of the largest single cell organisms) are captured by an imager chip. The Stentors swim backward when stressed, which is easy to detect with our compact microscope, so we are using them as model for measuring environmental stresses (including chemical pollution).

We are developing novel microscopes and image analysis software to enable researchers to use engineered cells as living sensors of environmental conditions — with real-world applications such as monitoring air pollution or serving as industrial quality control sensors. Our work also has a public service component. We are actively promoting better cellular literacy, by engaging and inspiring the public to embrace the promise of cells. We provide content and novel equipment, experiments and curriculum for high school engagement, research internships, science festivals, Maker Faires, hackathons and science museums.

Screen-shot of CellMorph, a digital pathology platform which will use cognitive computing to infer early signs of cancer.

Our group is part of a newly established Center for Cellular Construction, an NSF-funded Science and Technology Center based at UC San Francisco (NSF contract #). The center is a collaboration among IBM Research-Almaden, several universities (UC San Francisco, UC Berkeley, Stanford University and SF State University) and the Exploratorium to harness the untapped potential of cells as building blocks for better and more sustainable products, medicines and devices. The greater mission of the Center is to launch a new approach to understanding and designing cells, and impact the chemical industry with novel materials for medical, environmental, and industrial applications. To support our collaboration with our university partners, we are using and enhancing an IBM Research asset called LabBook, a collaborative tool that combines data management, analysis, visualization and conversation. The collaboration tool will serve as a platform for all team members to share and work with data generated to support the goals of the Center.

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