Jeff Tabor builds synthetic signaling circuits to engineer biological behaviors such as multicellular pattern formation and social interactions. Tabor takes an engineering approach by using cellular sensors and synthetic gene circuits to control genes of interest in tractable model organisms. Because these control systems are constructed in a step-wise fashion, they are amenable to rigorous characterization and optimization. This allows the development of well-parameterized mathematical models that increase the predictability of the design process in synthetic biology. Reprogramming how cells respond to their environment and interact with one another is of interest to basic science and has broad biomedical and industrial applications.
A major thrust of the Tabor laboratory is to genetically engineer new sensor proteins that recognize signals including cell-cell communication molecules, chemical biomarkers, and visible light. In particular, he has made major breakthrough technologies for the engineering of bacterial two-component sensors (TCS), which are the primary means by which bacteria sense and respond to environmental stimuli. Recent projects have focused on applications in optogenetics and synthetic probiotics.
The emerging field of optogenetics combines optics and genetically engineered photoreceptors to track and control molecular biological processes with unmatched precision. Active projects in the Tabor lab, which are supported by an NSF Early Career Development (CAREER) award, a Young Investigator Award by the Office of Naval Research, and grant from the Welch Foundation, have led to his discovery of the first TCS sensor/biomarker linked to gut inflammation and the development of novel bacterial sensors for the engineering of a probiotic E. coli that could diagnose and treat obesity, Crohn’s disease, type 2 diabetes, and cancer in the gastrointestinal tract.
This work is also resulting in improved mathematical models of gene circuit performance, and allowing for more advanced biological behaviors to be engineered. Custom light input/light output hardware is being combined with optogenetic tools to characterize genetic devices in a wide range of contexts with unprecedented accuracy, precision, and throughput.
Since coming to Rice in 2010, Tabor’s work at the interface of synthetic chemistry and molecular/cell biology has led to more than 30 peer-reviewed journal publications and five patent applications. Additional awards he has received include a Collaborative Research Award from the John S. Dunn Foundation (2016), a Michel Systems Biology Innovation Award (2013), a Hamill Innovation Award (2011) by Rice’s Institute of Biosciences and Bioengineering, and a National Academies Keck Futures Initiative (NAKFI) award (2009).
Tabor is an affiliated investigator of the NSF Synthetic Biology Engineering Research Center (SynBERC), a member of the editorial board of ACS Synthetic Biology, and has served on an NIH study section and five NSF panels. He also co-organized Synthetic Biology 5.0 – the leading conference in the field.
The tools of modern molecular biology allow the DNA of living organisms to be rapidly rewritten, and this in turn allows unnatural biological behaviors to be engineered. The Tabor lab takes a synthetic biological approach to studying how population-level phenomena, such as multicellular pattern formation and cooperation, are coordinated by the underlying gene regulatory networks. By constructing synthetic gene regulatory networks and linking cells together with artificial communication systems they aim to understand the rules by which a sequence of DNA can encode a population-level process. Also, by evolving their engineered gene circuits in the laboratory they can ask not only how biology works but why certain biological control systems are preferred over others. The study of biological ‘design principles’ has broad applications in science, medicine and biotechnology.