Course Meeting Times

Lectures: 1 session / week, 2 hours / session


7.03 Genetics
7.05 General Biochemistry
7.06 Cell Biology
7.08J Biological Chemistry II

Course Description

Biotechnology is a rapidly growing field that offers alternative ways to produce substances that previously were either made by complex chemical syntheses or impossible to produce. What do the organisms of the biosphere, specifically microorganisms, have to offer to biotechnological endeavors?

The advantages of using microbes include the use of carbonic waste streams (e.g. food and crop waste) or carbon dioxide for the production of products that are useful to us (biofuels, amino acids, etc.), fewer toxic waste byproducts than in chemical syntheses, and the possibility of producing highly complex molecules economically. Our ever-increasing repertoire of controllable biological functions (encoded by the genes present in an organism) allows for the efficient production of a broad variety of biomolecules. The number of possibilities grows as synthetic biology (the ability to synthesize DNA and design genes at will) progresses in its ability to alter microorganisms and enzymes to make chemical structures that have never existed. In this course we will focus on the production of biomolecules using microbial systems.

We will discuss potential growth substrates (such as agricultural waste and carbon dioxide) that can be used and learn about both established and cutting-edge manipulation techniques in the field of synthetic biology. This course will include the production of biofuels, bioplastics, amino acids (e.g. lysine), food additives (e.g. monosodium glutamate, MSG), specialty chemicals (e.g. succinate), and biopharmaceuticals (e.g. plasmids for gene therapy). We will learn how microbes have been used for several millennia to produce flavorings and alcoholic beverages (e.g. wine and beer) and discuss how biotechnology has been used to enhance the production capabilities of such microbial strains. We also will discuss the production of enzymes that can be purified and used in various applications: have you ever wondered why you can wash your clothes at low temperatures?

In addition, we will consider the production of medically relevant substances, such as antibiotics and biocompatible materials (e.g. polymers for tissue implants and tissue-engineering scaffolds). Finally, we will plan a field trip to a biotech company to learn how molecular biology and microbiology research can directly lead to the production of marketable compounds like plastics, medicines, and food additives.


The main objectives of this course are to introduce students to the primary scientific literature and the process of reading research publications as well as to introduce the field of microbial biotechnology and genetic engineering.


For each class, students will be assigned to read two papers. During each session, the group will discuss the articles, and the instructors will briefly introduce the papers for the next week.


This course will be graded Pass/Fail. Grading will be based on reading the assigned papers, participating in the class discussions, and completing the oral and written assignments.


1 Introduction and Overview  
2 Wine and Beer: Ethanol  
3 Food additives  
4 Amino acids  
5 Enzymes  
6 Specialty chemicals Written assignment due
7 Field trip: Microbia  
8 Biofuels I  
9 Biofuels II  
10 Biopolymers I  
11 Biopolymers II  
12 Biopharmaceuticals and Biosensors  
13 Oral presentations Oral Presentation due