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2021 Allen Distinguished Investigator award

The Allen Distinguished Investigator program provides three-year grants between $1M and $1.5M to individuals and teams

Engineering branching networks through synthetic turing morphogen circuits

Just a few years before his death, the famous mathematician and computer scientist Alan Turing proposed a model for the formation of many kinds of complex biological structures. In this model, two different chemicals spread from different release points in a developing creature, ultimately meeting and interacting at different concentrations that have a patterning effect on the organism’s development. This elegant model has been used to explain cat’s striping and spotted patterns, animal digit formation, hair and feather growth, and the branching structure of mammalian lungs. Most of these examples remain theoretical, but Wilson Wong, Ph.D., Chris Chen, M.D., Ph.D., and Darrell Kotton, M.D. are leading a project to test whether Turing’s model is responsible for the fractal-like branches of our lungs. The researchers will develop new tools to genetically engineer lung cells derived from human stem cells and attempt to recreate lung tissue’s complex branching in the lab. Ultimately, these tissues could be used in therapeutics for lung cancer and other lung diseases.

Wilson Wong headshot

Wilson Wong, Ph.D.

Boston University
Darrell Kotton headshot

Darrell Kotton, Ph.D.

Boston Medical Center/Boston University Center for Regenerative Medicine
Christopher S Chen headshot

Christopher S. Chen

Boston University

This project is part of the Synthetic biology advances for human tissues cohort

The field of synthetic biology has made incredible advances in recent years, and yet the complexity of mammalian biology presents an additional challenge for scientists aiming to engineer tissue or organoids in the lab. The investigators in the Mammalian Synthetic Development cohort are working to cross many of the barriers to mammalian synthetic biology, including several approaches to improve the development and engineering of organoids, lab-grown mini-organs typically derived from human stem cells. Their work spans many parts of the human body, including the liver, lungs, brain, and connective tissues.