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Wyss discoveries rank as runners-up to “Breakthrough of the Year”

Discoveries from teams led by Wyss Institute faculty members George Church, Ph.D., and Jim Collins, Ph.D., were recognized on a short list of runners-up for 2010 “Breakthrough of the Year,” the annual award given by Science for the most significant development in scientific research. Runners-up to the top award represent major advances in scientific understanding.

One such major advance came in November when Wyss researchers in the Biomaterials Evolution Platform, led by Dr. Church, announced the development of a new technology for synthesizing whole genes and potentially whole gene circuits. The technology is faster, more accurate, and significantly less expensive than current methods. As a next-generation tool, it could overcome critical research obstacles, leading to the creation of new engineered organisms for applications in medicine and energy.

Dr. Collins’ ground-breaking work in synthetic biology also garnered runner-up status. His lab has been exploring ways to change cell behavior, such as enhancing a cell’s sensitivity to drugs or inducing a cell to undergo programmed cell death. Among his recent technological developments is a specially designed RNA-based synthetic network that can be used to create a programmable kill switch for engineered microbes.

The Collins team’s major contribution to cellular reprogramming, done in collaboration with Derrick Rossi and George Daley of Harvard Medical School, also made the short list. Cellular reprogramming is the process in which scientists change a cell’s fate by turning on a small number of key genes. In this way, adult cells are able to act like embryonic stem cells.

By using synthetic RNA molecules, Dr. Collins and company found a way to stimulate this change without triggering the cell’s antiviral defenses–as typically happens with foreign RNA. The new technology represents a safe strategy for cell reprogramming and directing cell fate that has broad applicability for basic research, disease modeling, and regenerative medicine. And, as Science notes, it is twice as fast and 100 times as efficient as standard techniques.

Launched in 1989, “Breakthrough of the Year” is modeled on Time‘s “Man of the Year” and is widely recognized as one of the highest distinctions in science.

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