$$News and Reports$$

Jul. 15, 2014



The research group of Dr. Eyal Arbely from the Department of Chemistry and the National Institute for Biotechnology in the Negev has recently been awarded three research grants for their ongoing studies in the field of genetic code expansion – a branch of an exciting and rapidly growing research field called synthetic biology.  

“As synthetic biologists, we apply principles of engineering to biological systems", says Arbely. "While the traditional approach of biological sciences is to understand biological systems by studying their building blocks, the basic approach of synthetic biology is to manipulate, combine and redesign these building blocks with the aim to construct (synthesize) new biological systems for basic research and beneficial biotechnological applications." 

The interdisciplinary research of the Arbely group is based on knowledge and expertise in the fields of chemistry and biology. Their unique approach is applied to the study of biologically relevant questions, mainly related to cancer. "One approach in synthetic biology is 'top-down' engineering in which a new system, with new capabilities, is built by combining well characterized biological parts. The other approach is 'bottom-up' engineering that aims to build a new biological system by manipulating the most fundamental components of the system or even by designing a new biological system from scratch. An example of the 'bottom-up' approach in synthetic biology is the method of genetic code expansion that we are using." 

The genetic code is the Rosetta stone that translates the DNA sequence into amino acids that make proteins. Except for a few exceptions, the genetic code is common to practically all known organisms.  

"In principal, this means that almost all known organisms share the same vocabulary that is composed of 20 words – the 20 common amino acids. We expand the genetic code of several organisms to include a new, non-natural, amino acid, and thus introduce new "words". Hence, our re-engineered organisms have a vocabulary of more than 20 amino acids, and therefore have new capabilities. The ability to introduce new amino acids with new chemical groups into proteins, allows us to produce proteins with improved or novel properties that can help in solving biologically important questions or do what natural protein cannot," he explains. 

The Arbely Lab in Ben-Gurion University develops new applications of genetic code expansion and uses this powerful tool in basic and applied research.  

"As chemists we are interested in the development and synthesis of non-natural amino acids with new chemical functional groups." Arbely says. "As biologists, we are interested in studying biological systems and engineer their very basic components. We use the power of both fields to tackle questions that cannot be answered by other methods. For example, the importance of specific chemical groups added to proteins in cancer development. We also use these tools to decipher the structure and organization of macromolecular protein complexes (in collaboration with Dr. Natalie Elia from the Department of Life Sciences). On the applied research side, we utilize methods for genetic code expansion together with bio-orthogonal chemistry to develop new methods for specific and targeted delivery of drugs." 

“Our research is unique because of its interdisciplinary nature. We anticipate that applying methods and principles from the world of chemistry to biological problems will open new horizons in disease related studies and biotechnology," says Arbely.