A fundamental goal of synthetic biology is to understand design principles through engineering biochemical systems.Three in vitro synthetic transcriptional oscillators were constructed and analyzed: a two-node-negative feedback oscillator, an amplified negative-feedback oscillator, and a three-node ring oscillator.The in vitro oscillators are governed by similar design principles as previous theoretical studies and synthetic oscillators in vivo.Because of unintended reactions that arise even without the complexity of living cells, several challenges remain for predictive and robust oscillator performance.
Fundamental goals for synthetic biology are to understand the principles of biological circuitry from an engineering perspective and to establish engineering methods for creating biochemical circuitry to control molecular processes—both in vitro and in vivo (Benner and Sismour, 2005; Adrianantoandro et al, 2006). Here, we make use of a previously proposed class of in vitro biochemical systems, transcriptional circuits, that can be modularly wired into arbitrarily complex networks by changing the regulatory and coding sequence domains of DNA templates (Kim et al, 2006; Subsoontorn et al 2011). Using design motifs for inhibitory and excitatory regulations, three different oscillator designs were constructed and characterized: a two-switch negative-feedback oscillator, loosely analogous to the p53–Mdm2-feedback loop (Bar-Or et al, 2000); the same oscillator augmented with a positive-feedback loop, loosely analogous to a synthetic relaxation oscillator (Atkinson et al, 2003); and a three-switch ring oscillator analogous to the repressilator (Elowitz and Leibler, 2000).
DNA and RNA hybridization reactions (Figure 1B) can be assembled to create either an inhibitable switch (Figure 1A, right and bottom) with a threshold set by the total concentration of its DNA activator strand (Figure 1C, bottom), or an activatable switch (Figure 1A, left and top) with a threshold set by its DNA inhibitor strand concentration (Figure 1C, top). This threshold mechanism is analogous to biological threshold mechanisms such as ‘inhibitor ultrasensitivity' (Ferrell, 1996) and ‘molecular titration' (Buchler and Louis, 2008). Using these design motifs, we constructed a two-switch negative-feedback oscillator (Figure 1A, inset): RNA activator rA1 activates the production of RNA inhibitor rI2 by modulating switch Sw21, while RNA inhibitor rI2, in turn, inhibits the production of RNA activator rA1 by modulating switch Sw12. A total of seven DNA strands are used, in addition to the two enzymes, bacteriophage T7 RNA polymerase and Escherichia coli ribonuclease H. The fact that such a negative-feedback loop can lead to temporal oscillations can be seen from a mathematical model of transcriptional networks. Experimental results showed qualitative agreement with predicted oscillator behavior from simple model simulations.
The fully optimized system revealed five complete oscillation cycles with a nearly 50% amplitude swing (Figure 3A) until, after ∼20 h, the production rate could no longer be sustained in the batch reaction. Gel measurements verified oscillations in RNA concentrations and switch states (Figure 3B and C). However to our surprise, rather than oscillations with constant amplitude and constant mean, the RNA inhibitor concentration builds up after each cycle. An extended mathematical model that incorporated an interference reaction from ‘waste' product (Figure 3B and C) could qualitatively capture this behavior.
Using a new autoregulatory switch Sw11, we added a positive-feedback loop to the two-node oscillator to make an amplified negative feedback oscillator (Design II, Figure 1D). Further, we replaced the excitatory connection of Sw21 by a chain of two inhibitory connections, Sw23 and Sw31, to construct a three-switch ring oscillator (Design III, Figure 1D). All three oscillator designs could be tuned to reach the oscillatory regime in parameter space.
Reassuringly, our in vitro oscillators exhibit several design principles previously observed in vivo. (1) Introducing delay in a simple negative-feedback loop can help achieve stable oscillation (Novák and Tyson, 2008; Stricker et al, 2008). (2) The addition of a positive-feedback self-loop to a negative-feedback oscillator provides access to rich dynamics and improved tunability (Tsai et al, 2008). (3) Oscillations in biochemical ring oscillators (such as the repressilator) are sensitive to parameter asymmetry among individual components (Tuttle et al, 2005). (4) The saturation of degradation machinery and the management of waste products could play an important role.
However, several significant difficulties remain for predictive and robust oscillator performances: limited lifetime of closed batch reactions, interference from waste products, and asymmetry of switch components make quantitative modeling and predictio difficult. As a complementary approach to top-down view of systems biology, cell-free in vitro systems offer a valuable training ground to create and explore increasingly interesting and powerful information-based chemical systems (Simpson, 2006). In vitro oscillators could be used to orchestrate other chemical processes such as DNA nanomachines (Dittmer and Simmel, 2004) and to provide embedded controllers within prototype artificial cells (Noireaux and Libchaber, 2004; Griffiths and Tawfik, 2006).
The construction of synthetic biochemical circuits from simple components illuminates how complex behaviors can arise in chemistry and builds a foundation for future biological technologies. A simplified analog of genetic regulatory networks, in vitro transcriptional circuits, provides a modular platform for the systematic construction of arbitrary circuits and requires only two essential enzymes, bacteriophage T7 RNA polymerase and Escherichia coli ribonuclease H, to produce and degrade RNA signals. In this study, we design and experimentally demonstrate three transcriptional oscillators in vitro. First, a negative feedback oscillator comprising two switches, regulated by excitatory and inhibitory RNA signals, showed up to five complete cycles. To demonstrate modularity and to explore the design space further, a positive-feedback loop was added that modulates and extends the oscillatory regime. Finally, a three-switch ring oscillator was constructed and analyzed. Mathematical modeling guided the design process, identified experimental conditions likely to yield oscillations, and explained the system's robust response to interference by short degradation products. Synthetic transcriptional oscillators could prove valuable for systematic exploration of biochemical circuit design principles and for controlling nanoscale devices and orchestrating processes within artificial cells.