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Moon receives National Science Foundation CAREER Award

Scientists often use things found in nature as a model to make new things, for example, birds used as a model for airplanes. One engineer at Washington University in St. Louis is using a basic cell as a model to make genetically engineered bacteria that would produce biofuel or pharmaceuticals.

Tae Seok Moon

Tae Seok Moon, assistant professor of energy, environmental & chemical engineering in the School of Engineering & Applied Science, has received a prestigious Faculty Early Career Development Award (CAREER) from the National Science Foundation for his project titled “Engineering Biological Robustness through Synthetic Control.”

The awards support junior faculty who model the role of teacher-scholar through outstanding research, excellent education and the integration of education and research within the context of the mission of their organization. Moon is the 20th current faculty member in the School of Engineering & Applied Science to receive the award.

Moon received a five-year, $400,000 grant to understand the principles of biological robustness by using synthetic DNA in basic bacteria cells. It’s an idea he’s been thinking about since he was in graduate school.
“I want to analyze the existing cell rather than creating a totally new creature,” he says. “From that analysis, we can design synthetic DNAs then assemble them together to make an engineered cell.”

Airplanes face a lot of stresses when they fly, such as turbulence, wind speed and temperature changes, but sensors provide feedback to the plane’s flight controller to keep the plane in the air, or keep it “robust.” Likewise, Moon plans to engineer the bacteria cell with synthetic genetic circuits to keep it robust against its natural perturbations.

“The bacteria’s sole purpose is to divide and make more cells,” Moon says. “But if I put in a genetic circuit encoded in the DNA that controls its pathway to produce a particular product, the bacteria follow the order in the DNA.”

However, Moon says as time goes on, the cell mutates, and if one of the key genes is mutated, the whole function goes down, and the mutated cells dominate the whole population.

“My job is to minimize those populations so that I can maximize the overall productivity,” he says. “To do that, I need to understand the process.”

In addition to biofuel and pharmaceutical production, this process could be applied to environmental and health issues by replacing particular modules in cells with pathways designed to degrade toxic chemicals or kill infectious pathogens.

As part of Moon’s project, he will develop teaching kits for high school teachers working for Teach for America in the St. Louis area and eventually nationwide. The teaching kits will include a bacterium with the synthetic DNA and one without. The synthetic DNA makes the cell fluoresce, Moon says, so students can see it in a dark room with a portable UV lamp.

Education is one of Moon’s top priorities. Before earning a doctorate at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2009, Moon worked in industry for LG Chemical Ltd., LG Chem Investment Ltd. and LG Life Sciences Ltd. After being promoted from a research scientist to a manager, Moon began advising and mentoring other scientists.

“I found my passion in education and mentoring,” he says. “High school students are our future, so I want to invest more in them.”

Moon has plenty of help from two graduate students, Cheryl Immethun and Allison Hoynes-O’Connor. Immethun has volunteered with the university’s Young Scientist Program for high school students, and Hoynes-O’Connor was a teacher for Teach for America before coming to Washington University.