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The Bioengineer as Detective

Posted Tuesday, 01 March 2016

Why Alex Garruss believes biosensors can help make the world a better place.

As a young computer scientist right out of college, Alex Garruss was as fascinated by the application of computer science to biology and by the large-scale genomic datasets he analyzed as he was by the people whose work produced that data—biological scientists at the Stowers Institute for Medical Research in Kansas City, Missouri.

As Garruss’s understanding of biotechnology and biomedical research deepened, he realized that even as scientists’ experimental design and method varied, every principal investigator was “asking questions about long-standing and fascinating biological mysteries concerning the molecular basis of life.”

But ultimately, he was hooked by the multi-dimensionality of being a scientist. “Being a scientist meant so many amazing things,” he explains. “It meant being a thinker, deciding which questions were answerable and how to ask good questions; being a detective, and mapping the unknown by logic and reason; being a technologist and finding and adapting new tools and techniques; being a storyteller, presenting and writing about theories and potential ways of being; and being a champion, enduring repeated failure and fighting for solutions and cures.”

Garruss is a third year PhD candidate in Harvard’s Bioinformatics and Integrative Genomics (BIG) Program focusing his research on the design and engineering of biosensors. He works in the lab of George Church, Robert Winthrop Professor of Genetics, who researches bioengineering and genetics.

Biosensors combine a biological component, such as a protein serving as a sensor, with an electronic component that detects and transmits a signal. “The detection of various small molecules turns out to impact many areas of our lives and has the potential to greatly assist building a safer and more sustainable world,” Garruss says. Biosensors can be used in environmental monitoring, medical diagnostics, agriculture, defense-related applications, and bio-production.

“My research concerns how to learn the design principles to build biosensors for any molecule of interest,” he explains, “beginning by sampling variations of proteins that already serve as natural sensors.” He then uses techniques of bio-engineering to make those sensing capacities serve a new function. “Once we have a newly-redesigned sensor, we are very interested in how the sensors will be deployed into the world, be it a small electronic device connected to the Internet that monitors the ground water, a home or clinical device used at the point of care, which provides medical diagnostic information, or for use to optimize the bio-production of biofuels, medicines, and new materials.”

He is particularly excited by the ways that biosensors could transform environmental monitoring. The problem, as Garruss describes it, is that the current technology for detecting harmful toxins and pollutants relies on the manual collection of samples that are costly to analyze. Since sample collection is undertaken by people in the field, only a small sampling of a site can be done and at a limited point in time. Because processing samples generally requires advanced equipment at an off-site facility, regions of the world that cannot afford testing are left vulnerable.

Biosensors hold the potential to change that. “Our biosensors are designed for specific toxins and pollutants and they can be deployed as low-cost, small devices permitting their wide-spread use in an automated, on-site, online fashion,” he says. “Low-cost biosensors are also incredibly useful for research projects trying to establish links between exposure and disease incidence, so that proper policies can be developed reflecting potential dangers.” Existing technology can’t establish those firm links. By understanding the general design principles necessary, biosensors could be developed to detect thousands of chemicals of interest, such as those found in consumer products, soft plastics, herbicides and pesticides.

Garruss credits the flexible and collaborative culture of HILS with helping him explore new research directions and discover new, interdisciplinary fields in the biological sciences. “My previous experience was in cancer genomics and basic gene regulation, and I thought I would remain in those fields” he says. “Then, in my first year at Harvard, I became very interested in new fields such as synthetic biology, bioengineering, and biologically-inspired robotics. I discovered HILS-associated faculty in the engineering, genetics, and systems biology departments conducting really exciting research.”

He followed where his curiosity led, taking a computer science class and immersing himself in biologically-inspired hardware and software. He completed a laboratory rotation in synthetic and systems biology and another in bioengineering and genetics.

Garruss is extremely interested in translational applications for biological research and speaks enthusiastically about the need for getting ideas out of the lab, either by commercializing them or providing them to non-profit research groups. “Often innovations with the most transformative potential originate in basic research laboratories,” he says. “I would like to champion their application beyond the lab to realize near-term gains in health and the environment. As researchers, we are in a great position to expand sustainable solutions to the world’s most pressing challenges.” 

Garruss’s research interests are shifting into new fields, and he is setting his sights outside the lab, more conscious than ever of how “understanding and utilizing biological principles can make the world a better place.” Part detective, part engineer, his passion for science is as keen as ever. “The biggest impacts we can make come from the love of what we do,” he says.


Story credit: Andrea Volpe