Seattle Hub for Synthetic Biology launched

The Allen Institute, Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and University of Washington will turn living cells into recording devices to discover secrets of disease.

Media Contact:

  • The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative: Nicki Ghafari,
  • The Allen Institute: Peter Kim,
  • UW Medicine: Leila Gray,

The Allen Institute, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and the University of Washington announced today, Dec. 7, the launch of the Seattle Hub for Synthetic Biology. The landmark collaboration will build new technologies to record the history of cells over time.

These technologies are intended to help researchers crack the code to understand not just end-point measurements of cells and genes in health and disease, but also the dynamics of their trajectories over time. The Seattle Hub for Synthetic Biology brings together the best of large-scale science and philanthropy with proven academic power to develop, refine and share this single-cell technology. 

UW Medicine researchers Jay Shendure, Marion Pepper, Cole Trapnell and Jesse Gray will lead the Seattle Hub for Synthetic Biology from UW Medicine’s Brotman Baty Institute for Precision Medicine (BBI), where Shendure serves as scientific director. They will build on technology pioneered at BBI and the Allen Discovery Center for Cell Lineage Tracing to reimagine living cells and genomes as devices for recording complex biological information over time.

Shendure will serve as executive director of the Seattle Hub for Synthetic Biology. He is a professor of genome sciences at the University of Washington School of Medicine and an investigator at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. Shendure joined the UW in 2007 and was instrumental in creating BBI in 2017.

He described some of the research that will take place at the Seattle Hub for Synthetic Biology:

“Imagine being able to put a smartwatch into each of your cells to record to the genome itself everything that cell is experiencing,” he said. “Currently, when biologists take measurements, we’re limited to either observing how a few things change over time with a microscope, or to measuring everything but only at the moment in time that we break open the cell. With the kind of genomic smartwatch that we’re aiming to build, one could recover the full autobiography of each cell, rather than only the last page.”

This new paradigm, he added, has the potential to transform how scientists study the role of cells and genes in human health by providing unprecedented clarity into how biological events unfold over time. These events include molecular and cellular causal chains that begin with a genetic mutation and culminate with a developmental disease seen in a clinic. 

The technology will emerge in the form of a research tool to study changes in cells in the context of development and immunology. The scientific vision is to potentially extend the project into diverse research, diagnostic and clinical applications. 

“We are incredibly excited to enter this new era of collaboration to tackle big moonshot projects in partnership with others,” said Rui Costa, president and chief executive officer of the Allen Institute. “We’re bringing together experts in genomic engineering and synthetic biology to advance a new age of experimentation that will allow us to record the history of biological events in our cells, and eventually to design new, smart interventions for disease.”

The Allen Institute and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative have a joint commitment to open science. As such, findings from the new institute will be shared widely with the scientific community to fuel progress in labs throughout the Pacific Northwest and around the world.

“Every cell in our body has its own unique history. By developing new technologies to measure and understand the history of our cells over time, including how they are impacted by the environment around them, genetic mutations and other factors, we can expand scientists' understanding of what happens at the cellular level when we go from healthy to sick and help pinpoint the earliest causes of disease,” said Priscilla Chan, cofounder and co-CEO of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative.

“The Seattle Hub for Synthetic Biology demonstrates the enormous potential impact of values-driven partnerships, and it represents a new way of thinking about how we can solve problems more quickly and effectively through scientific collaboration,” said UW President Ana Mari Cauce. “Our shared values, paired with our complimentary perspectives and strengths, are a recipe for success, and I can’t wait to see what this team will accomplish together.” 

Related: Download broadcast-ready video and audio with Jay Shendure.


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Tags:genome sciencescell biologycell developmentimmunologybiotechnology

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