NEWS


AI Protein Solutions Travels Across the US as a part of the ICORPS Program

Posted on November 3, 2019:

Earlier this year, Austin Cole, Raghav Schroff, Danny Diaz, and Dr. Ross Thyer developed a machine learning algorithm to predict the identity of functional amino acids in protein sequences with high accuracy (Speeding up Evolution using AI). They have now translated this technology into a company, AI Protein Solutions.  Recently, the company and corresponding team of inventors was selected to be a part of the ICORPs Program of the National Science Foundation (NSF), which prepares scientists and engineers to get their products from the laboratory to the market. “The technologies that we as engineers come up with and the products we design are far short of a company,” explained Austin Cole. “The ICORPS Program introduced us to factors involved in taking our product and turning it into a commercial endeavor, such as finding competitors, reaching customers, and other business networking skills.” In 7 weeks time, the team flew around the country on 9 trips and ultimately interviewed 66 companies relevant to their product.  These trips provided insights into many of the problems that AI Protein Solutions hopes to solve, and the team believes it can use the advanced neural network they have generated to improve the structure and function of enzyme catalysts for textile, agricultural, bioprocessing, and therapeutics applications.  While the exact individuals and companies the team spoke with remain confidential, they found productive and active partnerships, and are in the process of starting work with them. “We came out of the program with a better understanding of how to bridge the gap between the business side and the technical side,” The experience gained through the ICORPs Program was invaluable, and according to Cole while “there is no business training for technical individuals, and while being tech savvy is important, learning about business mechanics is essential when making a company.  While the quality of your product is obviously important, the trust that the company confides in you and the relationships that you build are most essential, since they will be trusting you to solve their problems.”  

Read More about ICORPS


Project DREAM: Using Aptamers to Decrease Side-Effects of Anti-Cancer Drugs

Posted on October 28, 2019:

Project DREAM, led by Principal Investigators Dr. Carla Cruz (University of Beira Interior) and Dr. Andy Ellington (University of Texas at Austin) aims to mitigate the harmful side effects of anticancer drugs by using a unique nanosystem to target tumor cells and prevent healthy tissues from exposure to the otherwise toxic drugs. Recently, Dr. Cruz and Dr. Ellington were interviewed by a representative from the UT Austin Portugal Program (a major partnership program in between the Portuguese Foundation for Science and Technology and UT) regarding their unique approach and explained how an aptamer known as AS1411 could be modified to better carry drugs to tumors. “Previously, it was demonstrated that these aptamers can selectively deliver anticancer ligands,” Dr. Cruz said, such as acridine orange derivatives, and showed improved selectivity towards cancer cell lines. However, she continued, “moderate concentrations and long incubations were required to observe cytotoxicity.” In order to improve the selectivity and efficacy of the aptamers, they were conjugated to gold nanoparticles, which are preferentially internalized by tumor cells. Better cytotoxic effects were achieved with shorter incubation periods (2 days). The DREAM project ultimately includes researchers from two Portuguese laboratories (CICS-UBI and C2TN-IST), a public hospital (CHCB), a company (Labfit-HPRD) and the Ellington Lab from UT Austin, and overall the team hopes to move compounds towards clinical utility within 5 years via the COST Action program (a network for nationally funded research projects).

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U.S. Army Research Initiative Meeting held in Austin to discuss Creation of new types of Polymers

Posted on October 16, 2019:

On October 10, the Army Research Office (ARO) MURI award headed by Michael Jewett at Northwestern University was held in Austin, Texas, with collaborators Eric Anslyn (Chemistry), Andy Ellington (Molecular Biosciences), Charles Schroeder (University of Illinois Urbana Champaign(UIUC)), Jeff Moore (UIUC), Eric Gaucher (University of Georgia), and Rhiju Das (Stanford University). This diverse team is attempting to recast the ribosome not as a protein-making machine, but as a more generic polymer-making machine. Already, recombinant protein production by the ribosome has transformed the lives of millions of people through the synthesis of biopharmaceuticals, like insulin, and industrial enzymes, like subtilisin, that are used in laundry detergents. In nature, however, only limited sets of protein monomers are utilized, thereby resulting in limited sets of biopolymers (i.e., proteins). Here, the team seeks to expand nature’s repertoire of ribosomal monomers to yield new classes of enzymes, therapeutics, materials, and chemicals with diverse genetically encoded chemistry. To this end, they have developed new technologies for charging tRNAs with non-amino acid substrates using Flexizymes (ribozyme tRNA synthetases) and have engineered other aspects of the translation machinery, including Elongation Factor Tu and the ribosome itself, to be able to utilize these non-standard monomers to make decidedly non-protein polymers. Overall, the goal of the group is to develop a means of making sequence-defined, electronically active polymers for any of a variety of applications of commercial and defense importance.


Cannabis: The Future of Pain Alleviation?

Posted on September 23, 2019

Dr. Andy Ellington and his team from the Center for Systems and Synthetic Biology have been awarded a grant from the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) to search for and better understand minor compounds produced by cannabis that could potentially aid in the alleviation of pain (https://nccih.nih.gov/news/press/09192019). To this end, Dr. Ellington and his co-workers have developed an extremely novel system for the production and assay of cannabinoids ... in yeast! By using yeast as vehicles for screening, rather than plants, it becomes far easier to divide down the heady chemical mixtures that are present in the plant, and better define the particular active agents and what pain receptors these active agents may act on. The use of cannabinoids like CBD as a treatment for chronic pain has become increasingly popular, and might one day even serve as an alternative to opioids, which are highly addictive and aren’t as effective in the long run.

Read More about the grant


Cellular reagents make their mark in Africa

Posted on September 23, 2019

Earlier this year, Dr. Sanchita Bhadra and her team from the Ellington Lab at UT Austin built a kit that would make research easier to conduct in low resource areas. The kit is intended for students and instructors in these low-resource areas due to its cost effectiveness and ease of use. This would especially prove beneficial in giving research opportunities to aspiring researchers in need of a lab, allowing them to carry out procedures such as PCR using cellular reagents. (https://ellingtonlab.org/archive/2019/7/8/a-solution-to-research-in-low-resource-areas)

Since then, Dr. Bhadra and her team have also been working with scientists at Cambridge University and their research partners in various African countries to assess the utility of cellular reagents in molecular biology research and education. In initial studies, ready-to-use cellular reagents were sent to researchers in Cameroon and Ghana who were able to successfully perform PCR using these reagents. Cellular reagents seamlessly replaced pure enzymes in existing PCR protocols and performed robustly despite the vagaries of shipping and variations in humidity and temperature during storage. These exciting results demonstrating cellular reagents to be reliable alternatives to expensive pure enzymes have paved the way towards efforts in local production and more extensive outreach. Researchers in both UK and Africa are beginning to use expression constructs and production protocols developed in the Ellington Lab to undertake in-house production of cellular reagents. Starting with these foundational efforts, our global team aims to develop, test, and make freely available a comprehensive suite of common enzymatic reagents for molecular and synthetic biology.


SynCell 2020: Engineering Synthetic Cells and Organelles

Posted on September 10, 2019

SynCell 2020, the International Conference on Engineering Synthetic Cells and Organelles, will be held from May 11th through May 14th, 2020 in Santa Fe, New Mexico (https://syncell2020.unm.edu). The conference will focus on the challenges and opportunities in synthetic cell technology, or in other words making cells from scratch! Topic areas for the main program will include creating synthetic cells and organelles, spatial and temporal organization of these cytoplasmic structures, signaling and circuits, molecular machines, mechanics, motility, and the implications of synthetic cell technology. SynCell will feature talks from world leaders in synthetic biology from premier American and German universities and labs, including our very own Dr. Andy Ellington from the University of Texas at Austin, who will be discussing how DNA nanotechnology and protein engineering can impact the de novo development of cells. Talks will range from the engineering of biomolecular systems (Matthew Lakin, University of New Mexico) to the potential applications and simulations of these systems (Kate Adamala, University of Minnesota). An evening poster session and other dedicated times for free-form discussion are also planned. A featured translational speaker, Mike Jewett, will explore issues related to working with industry on the commercialization of synthetic cell technologies, and an industrial forum is planned for after Dr. Jewett’s talk. Finally, the first day of the conference consists of an interactive educational component for students and aspiring researchers.

Read More About SynCell 2020


DNA25 Meeting held in Seattle, Washington

Posted on August 27, 2019

The international DNA nanotechnology meeting, DNA25, was held this year in Seatlle, Washington on the University of Washington campus. This is the annual gathering of researchers interested in all aspects of DNA computation, and this year there was a focus on the use of DNA as a potential alternative to silicon as an information storage medium. Surprisingly, it may soon be cheaper to store archival data as nucleotides (GATC) rather than as digital flips in a memory core. Key issues that remain to be solved include how to access and easily read out the data, a problem that was considered in depth by another University of Texas at Austin researcher, David Soloveichik of the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department. In addition to delivering a talk on manipulation xenonucleic acids (XNAs) for computational applications, Dr. Ellington participated in a panel on the future of the field (see picture). This panel included Dr. Ned Seeman, widely regarded as the founder of DNA nanotechnology; Shelley Wickham of the University of Sydney; Anne Condon, from the University of British Columbia; and William Shih of the Wyss Institute at Harvard.

Read More About DNA25

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Ellington Lab Represented at EBRC Symposium in Washington D.C.

Posted on August 20, 2019

On August 1 & 2, the Engineering Biology Research Consortium (EBRC) held a symposium in Washington D.C. titled ‘The Convergence of Engineering Biology & Data Science: Understanding Risk and Mitigation Options’. The discussion was focussed on how computer and data science is impacting security in the field of biological engineering, and strategies to mitigate these issues. Talks were wide-ranging, from field overviews (Richard Murray, Caltech) to technical contributions (Lance Stewart, Center for Protein Design UW). Graduate student Austin Cole represented the Ellington Lab and a new start-up company, AI Protein Solutions, and presented a talk titled “Structure Based Machine Learning for Protein Engineering.” The talk was an outgrowth of novel neural network analyses of protein structure and stability, but was canted towards the possibilities inherent in using AI to predict and counter emergent biothreats. Speakers were drawn from top biological engineering laboratories in both academia and industry. The audience was composed entirely of Government stakeholders from a variety of agencies. Attendees discussed strategies that might be used to preemptively identify biological threats as well as how better risk assessments might be carried out.


Ellington Delivers Lecture in New York for a Synthetic Biology Course

Posted on August 9, 2019

On July 30, Dr. Ellington visited Cold Spring Harbor Labs (CSHL) in New York to deliver a lecture to the Synthetic Biology Summer Course, "The Tenuous Balance Between Systems and Synthetic Biology." Because of the centrality of both systems and synthetic biology in the Center for Systems and Synthetic biology (duh), Dr. Ellington could bridge between Ed Marcotte's fundamental work on phenologs and yeast humanization to his own work on augmenting the genetic code and developing orthogonal control systems for organisms. The CSHL course is a mainstay of students learning to enter the field of synthetic biology, and the diversity in backgrounds was fascinating. The beer was even better (still not sure about the raspberry ale).

Read more about CSHL

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AbSciCon 2019: Detecting Agnostic Biosignatures on Other Planets

Posted July 28, 2019

At the end of 2018, Dr. Andy Ellington and Dr. Eric Anslyn from the University of Texas at Austin, among 13 other scientists, were awarded a grant from NASA totaling nearly $7 million to continue research in detecting extraterrestrial life. This comes as a part of NASA’s Astrobiology Program, which is working to find life on neighboring planets using what’s called LAB, the Laboratory for Agnostic Biosignatures. In June 2019, Dr. Ellington and Dr. Anslyn attended AbSciCon, NASA’s Astrobiology Conference, and discussed efforts to detect these “agnostic biosignatures of life”. 

“The signals we are looking for are chemicals that are so complex that they could only have been created by some form of life,” says Dr. Anslyn. Really, any type of signature could be possible, although proteins and nucleic acids like that of humans are unlikely. “Since we don’t know what type of signal to expect, we need an agnostic method to detect life,” he further explains.

NASA also announced its “Dragonfly Mission” and presented the mission’s commander at AbSciCon 2019. Dragonfly’s goal is to create a probe that will launch in 15 years to Titan, one of Saturn’s moons, will take 8 additional years to reach its destination, and look for hints of life. While NASA is working to engineer this complex machinery, Dr. Ellington, Dr. Anslyn, and others are working together to develop chemical tests that NASA’s machinery would implement. In the near future, we hope to discover more about our neighboring planets, and what inhabits them.

Read more about AbSciCon


A Partnership with the Texas Department of Health to Detect Wolbachia in Harris County Mosquitoes

Posted July 26, 2019

Mosquitoes are known for housing a variety of nasty diseases, from Zika to dengue to yellow fever. As the weather begins to warm up, we want to enjoy the warm Texas sun. Unfortunately, so do the mosquitoes. Since these blood sucking creatures carry a variety of diseases, they make it difficult to enjoy the summertime. Mosquitoes that are infected with the bacteria Wolbachia however, have a reduced ability to transmit viruses to people, such as Zika or dengue. Dr. Sanchita Bhadra of the Ellington Lab in collaboration with Dr. Tim Riedel and his students in the DIY Diagnostics Freshman Research Initiative stream have developed an easy way to test mosquitoes to find out if they carry Wolbachia within tens of minutes, using LAMP-OSD. 

Earlier this year, Drs. Dagne Duguma and Mustapha Debboun from the Harris County Mosquito and Vector Control Division of the Texas Department of Health visited UT Austin to observe a demo of the Wolbachia test. They talked in detail with Dr. Bhadra and DIY Diagnostics undergraduate researcher, Simren Lakhotia, regarding application of this LAMP-OSD technology to facilitate vector surveillance in Harris County. “The representatives from Harris County were visiting us because they are interested in using our LAMP-OSD assay to test for Wolbachia in mosquitoes,” explains Dr. Bhadra. “We are getting ready to send them 100 Wolbachia tests, with which they will test mosquitoes collected from various regions in Harris County” she further stated. If successful, this pilot test will set the groundwork for developing and applying a larger suite of molecular testing methods for vector surveillance. By learning more about the environment around us, we can begin to address the public health problems plaguing us.


Drs. Ellington and Anslyn Present Efforts to Improve Science Education at Annual HHMI Meeting

Posted July 25, 2019

Dr. Eric Anslyn and Dr. Andy Ellington were present at the annual meeting on the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) compound in Chevy Chase, Maryland. The meeting was hosted by the HHMI Professors Program, a program empowering research scientists to extend engaging research opportunities to undergraduate students and improve science education. They presented both a lightning talk (Dr. Ellington) and chalk talk (Dr. Anslyn) on their conjoined efforts to develop professional and entrepreneurial education for undergraduates. Specifically, they presented their program known as Translational Research Initiative Professional (TRIP), which gives undergraduate chemistry majors first-hand experience of what it is like to be a graduate student in chemistry, as well as a close look at the lifestyle and career of chemistry professors. 

In addition to presenting their own efforts, they also interacted with a wide array of other Hughes’ Professors, who were promoting projects ranging from increasing the representation of underrepresented minorities in astronomy (Keivan Stassun, Vanderbilt) to carrying geoscience back to students’ home communities (Julia Clarke, University of Texas at Austin) to veterans’ involvement in the sciences (Dr. Marla Geha, Yale). Since the program began in 2002, sixty-nine scientists have been named HHMI professors, working to support students in their path to STEM related careers. 

Read more about HHMI Professors


Early Exposure to Scientific Research: A New TIDES/FRI Program

Posted July 23, 2019

In order to train the scientists of the future, they should be exposed to cutting edge approaches now.  This of course is what a modern research University does; it provides undergraduates with access to key thought leaders and research resources that enable STEM career paths to be built and taken.  But why wait until college to start this process? The TIDES program and the Freshman Research Initiative at the University of Texas offers research opportunities to high school students, placing them in labs for a summer experience through the High School Research Academy. This program has been placing students in the Ellington Aptamer FRI research stream for the past eight years, allowing the students to decide what projects and procedures to carry out. Additionally, the students have seen successes in iGEM science competitions, winning gold in 2015, as well as bronze in 2017 and 2018. Now, the Ellington lab has developed a program to bring high school students into research labs for longer internships that last through the entire academic year. As a result, in addition to early training and prolonged exposure to the sciences, the high school students will gain critical presentation skills from exhibiting their work in international competitions such as iGEM and Intel ISEF. By granting them additional time in the lab, these students are able to not only develop thorough research ability, but interact with local and global experts alike, allowing them to develop a network which they can leverage throughout their careers. 


Ellington Receives Research Foundation’s STAR Award

Posted July 15, 2019

On July 12, 2019, Dr. Ellington received the Research Corporation for Science Advancement's (RCSA) STAR award for his work on entrepreneurial education. In partnership with Dr. Sarah Eichhorn and the Texas Institute for Discovery Education, Dr. Ellington has helped to establish the Inventors' Program, where students can take on translational problems and learn business-ready skills. As an example, Simren Lakhotia, an undergraduate researcher in the program, has worked on the development of a portable field diagnostic for Rocky Mountain spotted fever that would allow hikers to test individual ticks for the disease. Dr. Ellington was originally a Cottrell Scholar, an award that allowed teaching and research to be melded, and has since maintained a long association with the Research Foundation, an organization devoted to advancing science education.

Read more about the RCSA’s STAR award


A Possible Bridge Between the Modern Protein-Based world and a hypothetical “RNA World”

Posted July 11, 2019

On July 11, 2019, Dr. Ellington delivered a short talk and poster at the 19th Human Frontiers Science Program (HFSP) Conference, detailing progress by an international team on "Rebuilding and reimagining the last common ancestor, a ribo-organism." In this bold project, Dr. Ellington is collaborating with Dr. Hiro Suga (University of Tokyo), Dr. Michael Jewett (Northwestern University), and Dr. Philippe Marliere (Université Evry) on replacing the machinery responsible for enforcing the genetic code, protein tRNA synthetases, with ribozymes that can perform similar tasks. In doing so, the team hopes to return living systems to an earlier state — a transitional organism that bridged between a hypothetical "RNA world" where ribozymes ruled and the modern protein-based world. In addition, given the facility with which ribozymes can be reprogrammed, the engineering of such an organism would offer many opportunities for changing and expanding the genetic code, leading to many possible biotechnology applications.

Read more about the 19th HFSP Conference here


Two UT Scientists Helping to Detect ‘Life As We Don’t Know It’

Posted June 26, 2019 from an article in UT News

Two University of Texas at Austin faculty members have joined an interdisciplinary scientific team that is working with NASA to research new approaches to detecting extraterrestrial life. The UT Austin team will receive more than $722,000 over five years for the NASA project, which aims to develop methods to detect life on other worlds that might look nothing like life on Earth.

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February 22, 2019: DNA Gets a New — and Bigger — Genetic Alphabet. New York Times

DNA is spelled out with four letters, or bases. Researchers have now built a system with eight. It may hold clues to the potential for life elsewhere in the universe and could also expand our capacity to store digital data on Earth. (Read the full news article or read the paper!)

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February 22, 2019: Anna’s project is front page of Nature Chemistry.

The biological function of many proteins requires their assembly into a specific multi-protein structure. Designing artificial protein assemblies is difficult, however, and often relies on the precise redesign of protein–protein interfaces. Now, David W. Taylor, Andrew D. Ellington and colleagues have shown that supercharging green fluorescent protein enables variants of alternating net charge to assemble into a variety of well-defined architectures. The front cover shows a symmetrical 16-mer structure composed of two stacked rings of octamers.


January 18, 2019: A project which the Ellington laboratory is working on is on the news. The UT Austin chemistry team has received a $722,000 NASA grant to establish new methods that show the proof of life outside the Earth.

University of Texas' Spring Semester starts next week and some students will be working this year on a project- that's "out of this world."

August 30, 2018: Simple test detects disease-carrying mosquitoes, presence of biopesticide. Sanchitas’ research on Zika is on Science Daily

September 7, 2016: Andre's latest paper on evolving orthogonal suppressor tRNAs for modified amino acid incorporation is now available to read.

July 18 - 21, 2016: Several members of the lab attended SEED 2016 in Chicago, where Andy spoke about the functional incorporation of unnatural amino acids into proteomes.

June 24, 2016: Research by Jared, Jimmy, and Raghav on the development of a reverse transcriptase capable of proofreading is featured in this week's issue of Science.

Summer 2016: Eric Verbeke joins the lab as a summer rotation student. Welcome Eric!

May 25, 2016: Bo's paper on anti-ricin antibody discovery through repertoire analysis and yeast surface display is out.

May 23, 2016: The new lab website is under construction.

April 29, 2016: Jared successfully defends his dissertation.

March 31, 2016: A new paper by Cheulhee on expanding oligonucleotide terminal hairpin formation and self-priming (THSP) by incorporating phosphorothioates is now available.

March 23, 2016: Sherry successfully defends her dissertation.