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After helping create first synthetic cell, researcher continues to take ideas and make them work
Story by Sean Nealon, BA ’01; photos by Max S. Gerber
In 1995, Daniel Gibson, BS ’99, arrived at UB and was accepted into the Howard Hughes Medical Institute Scholars Program, which allowed him to learn the fundamentals of scientific research in Paul Gollnick’s molecular biology lab in Hochstetter Hall.
Fifteen years later, using those fundamentals, Gibson made international headlines for co-leading a team that created the first synthetic cell, a development that could transform industries, including biofuels, clean-water technology and medicine.
The accomplishment drew comments from the Vatican and the White House, both of which cited the importance of the research, and placed Gibson ahead of George Clooney and President Barack Obama on Time magazine’s 2011 online poll of most influential people.
“All the basic molecular biology tools and so many of the tools I use everyday—it all started in that lab at UB,” Gibson says from his office at the J. Craig Venter Institute in San Diego, Calif., a biotechnology research center about a mile from the Pacific Ocean.
Gibson, 35, is low-key and soft-spoken, more at ease talking about his family and the Buffalo Sabres than about meetings with lawmakers on Capitol Hill, or invitations to travel to more than 20 countries to speak about his research.
He’s an associate professor at Venter Institute and a principal scientist at Synthetic Genomics Inc., a privately held biotechnology company. Both were created by J. Craig Venter, a former UB and Roswell Park Cancer Institute scientist who was one of the first people to sequence the human genome.
In 2004, Gibson earned his PhD from the University of Southern California and landed a postdoctoral research position at the Venter Institute’s Rockville, Md., office. Hamilton “Ham” Smith, a co-recipient of the Nobel Prize in medicine in 1978 and the leader of the synthetic biology group at the Venter Institute, was among those who hired Gibson.
Smith said he was initially impressed by Gibson’s eagerness. Once hired, Smith realized Gibson had the uncanny ability to take an idea and make it work. “I recognized him as a star within a couple months,” Smith says.
Gibson joined a team at the Venter Institute tasked with building a synthetic bacterial genome by taking DNA created digitally, inserting it into a living bacterium and keeping it alive.
In 2008, the team synthesized the first bacterial genome in a lab. Then, in 2010, they culminated a 15-year effort by creating the first cell constructed in the lab using only synthetic DNA.
Gibson helped make this work possible by developing a process that allows for the quick assembly of DNA fragments. It became known as Gibson Assembly. It was commercialized in February and is now used in labs around the world.
The creation of the synthetic cell is the first step in what could be a biological revolution to customdesign organisms, similar to how computer software is reprogrammed. This could mean creating flu vaccines in 24 hours instead of several months, creating organisms to clean water and genetically enhancing algae to produce oil that can be turned into fuels.
Now, Gibson is working to automate, reduce the cost of and improve the accuracy of synthetic cell construction. His team also is working to make better biofuels out of algae and recently showed that flu vaccines can be produced 28 days faster using Gibson Assembly than the conventional process.
West Seneca, N.Y.
Advice to science students
Take a wide range of classes—he wishes he took classes in computer science and business.
“A lot of my colleagues are smarter than me. But no one works harder than me. I would never let anyone work harder than me. Maybe that comes from being from Buffalo.”
Work featured in 2011 “60 minutes” story called “J. Craig Venter: Designing Life” and a Science Channel documentary “Creating Synthetic Life.” Alumni recognition 2012 George W. Thorn Award given to a distinguished graduate under 40 Video Students in the United Kingdom wrote song about Gibson Assembly method. The YouTube video has more than 17,000 views.
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