Gene networks and signaling pathways display complex topologies and, as a result, complex nonlinear behaviors. Accumulating evidence shows that both static (concentration) and dynamical (rate-of-change) features of transcription factors, ligands and environmental stimuli control downstream processes and ultimately cellular functions. Currently, however, methods to generate stimuli with the desired features to probe cell response are still lacking. Here, combining tools from Control Engineering and Synthetic Biology (cybergenetics), we propose a simple and cost-effective microfluidics-based platform to precisely regulate gene expression and signaling pathway activity in mammalian cells by means of real-time feedback control. We show that this platform allows (i) to automatically regulate gene expression from inducible promoters in different cell types, including mouse embryonic stem cells; (ii) to precisely regulate the activity of the mTOR signaling pathway in single cells; (iii) to build a biohybrid oscillator in single embryonic stem cells by interfacing biological parts with virtual in silico counterparts. Ultimately, this platform can be used to probe gene networks and signaling pathways to understand how they process static and dynamic features of specific stimuli, as well as for the rapid prototyping of synthetic circuits for biotechnology and biomedical purposes.
Keywords: control engineering; microfluidics; synthetic biology.