University of Minnesota
School of Physics & Astronomy

Research Spotlight

Biophysics of a minimal cell system

Vincent Noireaux
Vincent Noireaux
Richard Anderson

Vincent Noireaux is an Associate Professor in the area of experimental biological physics and synthetic biology. Professor Noireaux’s research revolves around in vitro synthetic gene networks and minimal cells which are able to express DNA.

Noireaux’s group encapsulates the transcription and translation molecular machineries of living cells inside cell-sized liposomes. Using these materials, synthetic gene networks are executed to construct biological functions towards self-replication.

The first part of Noireaux’s research is to create in vitro gene circuits to better understand the dynamical properties of genetic information. “We are trying to engineer elementary gene circuits that have similarities to electronic gates, such as AND and NOT gates.” These gene networks are expressed in either test tube reactions, micro fluidic devices or synthetic liposomes. Noireaux uses these elementary gene circuits to construct biological function related to cell mechanics.

The goal is to predict behavior as you would in any other area of physics. Of course genetic expression is an incredibly complex version of this type of system. “It’s a coding polymer”, Noireaux said, “As soon as you change a few letters of the code you can change everything.” Working in vitro with gene expression, Noireaux and his group are able to create gene circuits in isolation. This approach allows them to investigate the biophysical and biochemical properties of those complex systems, DNA-coded self-assembly of active structures in particular. By controlling expression, they try to program specific biological functions such as cell division and membrane growth.

The group is also developing some applications of their experimental platform. Noireaux’s group is currently collaborating with a few startup companies to use the system as a screening platform for biotechnology and medicine. We have also developed many collaborations with other academic groups, Noireaux says.
“Now that we have a versatile and really powerful cell-free expression system we can definitely reconstruct biological functions towards self-replication of synthetic liposomes. We have already demonstrated that we can create multiple-cascade reactions in liposomes, as well as entirely synthesize bacteriophages from their genomes in a test tube. The next step is to construct active self-organized structure inside the minimal cell.”