Synthetic epigenetics in yeast
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Epigenetics is the study of heritable biological variation not related to changes in DNA sequence. Epigenetic processes are responsible for establishing and maintaining transcriptional programs that define cell identity. Defects to epigenetic processes have been linked to a host of disorders, including mental retardation, aging, cancer and neurodegenerative diseases. The ability to control and engineer epigenetic systems would be valuable both for the basic study of these critical cellular processes as well as for synthetic biology. Indeed, while synthetic biology has made progress using bottom-up approaches to engineer transcriptional and signaling circuitry, epigenetic systems have remained largely underutilized. The predictive engineering of epigenetic systems could enable new functions to be implemented in synthetic organisms, including programmed phenotypic diversity, memory, reversibility, inheritance, and hysteresis. This thesis broadly focuses on the development of foundational tools and intellectual frameworks for applying synthetic biology to epigenetic regulation in the model eukaryote, Saccharomyces cerevisiae. Epigenetic regulation is mediated by diverse molecular mechanisms: e.g. self-sustaining feedback loops, protein structural templating, modifications to chromatin, and RNA silencing. Here we develop synthetic tools and circuits for controlling epigenetic states through (1) modifications to chromatin and (2) self-templating protein conformations. On the former, the synthetic tools we develop make it possible to study and direct how chromatin regulators operate to produce distinct gene expression programs. On the latter, we focus our studies on yeast prions, which are self-templating protein conformations that act as elements of inheritance, developing synthetic tools for detecting and controlling prion states in yeast cells. This thesis explores the application of synthetic biology to these epigenetic systems through four aims: Aim 1. Development of inducible expression systems for precise temporal expression of epigenetic regulators Aim 2. Construction of a library of chromatin regulators to study and program chromatin-based epigenetic regulation. Aim 3. Development of a genetic tool for quantifying protein aggregation and prion states in high-throughput Aim 4. Dynamics and control of prion switching Our tools and studies enable a deeper functional understanding of epigenetic regulation in cells, and the repurposing of these systems for synthetic biology toward addressing industrial and medical applications.