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HHMI Project:
Biology for Engineers




Spring Quarter, 2008

M,W,F  9:30 - 10:20am

MEB 242


We are entering an age of discovery in biology that is unprecedented in the history of humankind.  Whereas the “classical” engineering disciplines, such as chemical, civil, mechanical, etc. have been robustly characterized as the fundamental level and precisely described mathematically, the same is not true for a cell.  While we as humans can achieve spectacular feats of engineering, such as useful polymers, dams and bridges, and space vehicles, they pale in sophistication and complexity when compared to the molecular machines which enable living organisms.  However, during the last few decades, researchers have developed techniques to study these machines and complex systems, such as x-ray crystallography and rapid genomic sequencing, which are launching us forward into deeper understanding of the fundamental processes of life on Earth. Humankind will soon develop and refine sophisticated, rational, approaches to engineering living systems for a wondrous variety of purposes.  Without a doubt, we will see in our lifetimes, historic advances in our understanding and control of living systems.  As engineers, you hold the key to combining the fields of engineering and biology, and this course is designed to provide an introduction to that interface, presenting biology from and engineering perspective.

Learning Objectives

The instructional agenda, classroom exercises, and assignments will provide you with powerful tools and unique perspectives on biology and engineering at a level commensurate with your participation and effort.  Further, as you are introduced to the fundamental characteristics of life and the techniques used to study them, you will be stretched by the course material, mode of learning, and your own synthesis of biology and engineering.  This course assumes very little advanced knowledge of biology, but expects backgrounds in general chemistry, differential equations, thermodynamics, and elementary design principles.  You will see that living systems are complex, interactive, and dynamic, yet they are still governed by the same laws of physics, chemistry, and thermodynamics as everything else.  Throughout this course, you will experience nature’s engineering and begin to gain and appreciation for how biological systems can be engineered by human design.

This course will arm you with an understanding of the following:

  • the functions of living systems and constraints on life’s boundaries
  • the cell as the fundamental unit of life, and how it carries out the functions of life
  • the mechanisms of biological information handling
  • the tools to investigate the human genome
  • the energy utilization of the cell and biological systems
  • the relationship between structure and function of biological molecules
  • the movement of molecules, cells, and tissues
  • the integration of cells into tissues
  • the role of cells in musculoskeletal tissue function and control
  • the design and manipulation of replacement tissues and materials

Throughout this course, we will travel from the amino acid scale (0.8 nanometers) to the organism scale (1.8 meters) examining biological function and control.  The course material will be taught using a combination of lectures, class and small group discussions, homework and reading assignments, mathematical and numerical modeling problems, laboratory exercises, and some problem-based exercises.

Many of biological problems addressed will be underdetermined systems (no single solution, but infinite solutions) that require analysis and evaluation.   Additionally, you will discuss and evaluate ethical issues associated with the engineering of biology.

Throughout the course, you should be able to consistently identify and describe the components of the system(s) under study, explain how they work and interact, and apply your new knowledge to an analogous but different system or problem.

This course will provide you with education in the following ABET criteria:

(a)   an ability to apply knowledge of mathematics, science, and engineering

(b)   an ability to design and conduct experiments, as well as to analyze and interpret data

(c)   an ability to design a system, component, or process to meet desired needs

(d)   an ability to function on multi-disciplinary teams

(e)   an ability to identify, formulate, and solve engineering problems

(f)     an understanding of professional and ethical responsibility

(g)   an ability to communicate effectively

(h)   a knowledge of contemporary issues



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