Mark van Zee
- Advisor: Dino Di Carlo
- Department: Bioengineering
- Campus: UCLA
- BioPACIFIC MIP Research: SET 1 - Bioderived Materials; SET 4 - Degradation-optimized Materials
What is your research focus?
Increasing yields of bioderived materials is a critical bottleneck in making derived materials cheap enough for widespread adoption and we believe that PicoShells can solve the major pain points in this process. Specifically, current screening tools involving well plates or microfluidics are only able to characterize cells based on their behavior in laboratory-specific settings and environments. While cells selected using these tools can produce high yields of the desired bioproduct in a tube or flask, they oftentimes do not exhibit the same desired phenotypes when placed into a fermenter.
PicoShells are spherical microparticles with a hollow center and an outer porous shell made of polyethylene glycol that can be fabricated at a rate of 2000 particles per second. Cells are placed into the hollow center where they can grow and produce the desired bioproduct. Due to the free diffusion of small molecules and proteins across the shell, the encapsulated cells can be exposed to a wide variety of environments/solutions by simply centrifuging the particles and swapping out the external solution. PicoShells can also be placed into bioreactors where the encapsulated cells are exposed to fermenter-specific chemical gradients and cell-cell communication factors that cells wouldn’t be exposed to when using other screening technologies. PicoShells can be coupled with standard fluorescence-activated cell sorting (FACS), which enables us to screen millions of clonal colonies based on their production rates with throughputs of >50 colonies per second.
We expect that PicoShell technology will accelerate the process of cellular engineering and scale-up of bio-derived materials.
What excites you about NSF BioPACIFIC MIP?
PicoShells is a tool that I invented and have been developing since my undergraduate studies in the Di Carlo lab. After 6 years of exploration, we developed a proof-of-concept and spent another year refining it into a robust and repeatable system suitable for real-world applications. We are currently collecting datasets for a couple of cell and protein evolution applications to demonstrate the workflow performance and are optimistic that the workflow will soon be ready for wider industrial use.
Our network is limited to a few collaborators, and we believe that expanding our network will enable us to receive more diverse feedback to take the next steps. Also, PicoShells need to be integrated into automation workflows to maximize its potential. The BioPACIFIC MIP training program offers an ideal platform to achieve this, as we can grow our network, integrate our tool with automation workflows exclusive to the program, and make it available to other members. This will improve their workflows and provide us with valuable information to help us take the next steps. Therefore, we see joining this program as an opportunity to grow the platform and make it accessible to a larger audience.