Living Biofoundry brings new synthetic biology and microbial engineering capabilities to campus

High-throughput, automated platform available in CNSI at UCLA


by Wayne Lewis

The Living Biofoundry

There’s a new shared-use resource for UCLA investigators seeking to perform experiments at scale developing microbes into factories for novel materials and compounds — as well as those studying a host of other topics related to microbes. The California NanoSystems Institute at UCLA now offers access to a ThermoFisher Scientific Laboratory Automation System, dubbed “the Living Biofoundry.”

The recent acquisition is a cornerstone technology of the BioPACIFIC Materials Innovation Platform (BioPACIFIC MIP), a collaboration between UCLA and UCSB funded by the National Science Foundation. The program is dedicated to designing sustainable biobased alternatives to polymers derived from petroleum. In support of that vision, the Living Biofoundry is specially designed for synthetic biology and microbial engineering. It provides an automated, high-throughput platform for assembling, amplifying and transforming genes, as well as growing new strains and analyzing metabolites. Scientists and engineers can use the system to produce monomers and polymers with precise repeat units, domains and chirality directly from microorganisms.

“The NSF-funded Living Biofoundry can automate molecular biology, biochemical and synthetic biology experiments in a highly programmable workflow,” said Yi Tang, a UCLA professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering, a co-principal investigator of the BioPACIFIC MIP and a member of CNSI. “Such capabilities can lead to the high-throughput discovery and engineering of new enzymes, renewable chemicals and pharmaceuticals, and can serve the broader UCLA biomedical and bioengineering research communities.”

The state-of-the-art Living Biofoundry is powered by an integration of ThermoFisher Scientific’s Spinnaker microplate robot and Momentum automation programming interface. The robot, with built-in vision capability, is known for its ease of use, while the intuitive software allows users to run multiple methods simultaneously and make decisions on the fly in real time. The system comprises other advanced scientific devices, including the following:

  • The ThermoFisher Scientific Cytomat 2 C450 incubator has a temperature range from 4 to 50 degrees Celsius, with unmatched temperature uniformity and stability, a storage carousel capacity of up to 320 microplates and the ability to set tailored, container-specific speeds.
  • The Tecan Fluent 780 automation workstation is easily reconfigurable and includes a unique flexible channel arm with both liquid and air displacement technologies.
  • The Tecan Spark 20M multimode microplate reader includes a high-speed monochromator that can perform a full-absorbance spectrum scan in under 5 seconds and a multicolor luminescence module that makes possible virtually any luminescence measurement.

Users of the Living Biofoundry can also mine a data library of biosynthetic pathways to accelerate the discovery and scaled-up production of bioderived building blocks and biopolymers. With the extensive suite of microscopy and spectroscopy equipment nearby at the CNSI Technology Centers, users also have the chance to determine the structure of small molecule and semicrystalline polymers quickly and reliably.

“The BioPACIFIC MIP Living Biofoundry provides exciting new capabilities to the research community at UCLA and beyond,” said Adam Stieg, associate director of CNSI and UCLA site executive director of BioPACIFIC MIP. “This strategic investment in our shared infrastructure, enabled by funding from the NSF, offers a new platform for the development of sustainable biomaterials, provides the next-generation workforce with hands-on training in industry-relevant technologies and empowers the development of new programs that leverage automated synthetic biology at CNSI.”

In addition to the BioPACIFIC MIP’s work creating new biopolymers, the team will further develop the nascent technology of automated synthetic biology and all associated processes for workflow development, sample preparation, data acquisition and analysis — an area of particular strength at UCLA. The novel approaches pioneered there will benefit both Living Biofoundry users and the broader research community.

Inquiries about the Living Biofoundry, including requests for access or project consultation, can be directed to biopacificmip@cnsi.ucla.edu.