Packard Fellow to Examine Processing Speed of ‘Reprogrammed’ Bacteria

Packard Fellow Lingchong You

Lingchong You, assistant professor of biomedical engineering at the Pratt School of Engineering, has won a fellowship from the David & Lucile Packard Foundation for his research into the information processing speed of bacteria that have been “reprogrammed” to perform new, and potentially useful, tasks.

The Packard Fellowship for Science and Engineering aims to provide support for “unusually creative researchers” within their first three years as faculty, according to the foundation’s web site. You -- one of 20 Packard Fellows selected this year -- will receive $625,000 in unrestricted research funds over the next five years.

“The Packard means a lot,” You said. “It’s a great honor and will provide critical support for advancing my research.”

The fellowship will support fundamental aspects of You’s research into the development of synthetic gene circuits. These are carefully designed combinations of genes that can be “loaded” into bacteria or other cells, directing their activity in much the same way that a basic computer program directs a computer. Such re-programmed bacteria might eventually serve in a wide variety of applications, including biocomputing, medical treatments, and environmental cleanup, said You, who is also affiliated with the Duke Institute for Genome Sciences & Policy.

A microbial swarmbot is a small population of bacterial cells that are autonomously regulated by synthetic gene circuits inside micrcapsules.

“The basic idea is like writing a simple computer program, in this case, to program cell behavior,” You said. “We might be able to re-engineer bacteria to deliver different types of drugs or selectively kill cancer cells, for example.” Synthetic gene circuits will also lead to new insights into basic cellular dynamics.

The research now, however, is in its very early stages, You said. So far, E. coli bacteria have been programmed to grow in numbers until a certain population size is reached. The bacteria then kill themselves off, growing again only after their numbers dwindle sufficiently.

The relatively simple program takes advantage of bacteria’s ability to communicate with one another, a process known as “quorum sensing,” and essential genetic pathways that control cell death.

You’s team is working on more complex programs, but questions remain about the fundamental limits of such a cellular-based system, he said. The living “network” will be constrained, for example, by natural variation among cells in their response to particular genes or environmental conditions, he said.

The Packard Fellowship will provide support for addressing such essential questions about the “fidelity and speed of information transmission through cellular networks,” You said.

You holds a master’s in molecular biology from the University of Science and Technology of China and a Ph.D. in chemical engineering from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He served as a postdoctoral scholar at the California Institute of Technology before joining the faculty at Duke in 2005.

The complete list of Packard awardees is available at