University of Pittsburgh

All plenary sessions will be presented in Alumni Hall’s 7th floor lecture hall.


Provost Lecture
Life Redesigned: The Emergence of Synthetic Biology
4:00 p.m., Thursday, 8 October

James J. Collins, PhD
Henri Termeer Professor of Biological Engineering, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Investigator, Howard Hughes Medical Institute

James J. Collins, PhD, has conducted research in systems biology and synthetic biology—two cutting-edge fields that harbor significant research potential to combat bacteria. He uses network biology approaches to investigate antibiotic action and drug resistance and studies bacterial defense mechanisms. His research comes at a pivotal time: Antibiotic effectiveness continues to wane as bacteria develop further resistance to drugs.

To understand how bacteria counter antibiotics, Collins uses reverse engineering methods to construct and study models of gene regulatory networks. He employs synthetic biology to create designer probiotics that can combat and prevent infectious diseases. The Collins lab engineered Lactobacillus gasseri—the agent that turns milk into yogurt—to detect cholera bacteria in the intestine and produce antimicrobial peptides to kill them. The lab’s work in synthetic biology includes the use of proteins, genes, and other bits of DNA as building blocks to develop genetic toggle switches, RNA switches, and other mechanisms to rewire organisms and provide further capabilities to fight bacteria. Such reprogrammed organisms could also be used to attack tumors and guide stem cell development.

Collins received his bachelor’s degree in physics in 1987 from the College of the Holy Cross and his PhD in medical engineering from the University of Oxford in 1990. After spending the majority of his career at Boston University, Collins established his current lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2014, where he is the inaugural Henri Termeer Professor of Biological Engineering at the Institute for Medical Engineering and Science. Collins is also a core founding faculty member of the Wyss Institute at Harvard University and a member of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard. He is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, the Institute of Medicine, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Collins received a MacArthur Foundation fellowship, a 2007 National Institutes of Health Director’s Pioneer Award for research on bacterial drug resistance, and a Sanofi-Institut Pasteur Award.