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Nicholas Butzin

Dr. Butzin in the Lab

Title

Assistant Professor of Synthetic Biology

Office Building

Alfred Dairy Science Hall

Office

225E

Mailing Address

Alfred Dairy Science Hall 225E
Biology & Microbiology-Box 2104A
University Station
Brookings, SD 57007

Biography

Dr. Butzin joined the Department of Biology and Microbiology at South Dakota State University in 2017 as an Assistant Professor. He previously was a Research Scientist and postdoc in the Department of Physics, Virginia Tech, and a postdoc in the Department of Molecular & Cell Biology, University of Connecticut. The Butzin lab explores microbial systems using an evolutionary perspective and a synthetic biology approach. His goal is to understand the principles behind robustness in both natural and synthetic microbial systems. He is particularly interested in how individual cells cope with constant fluctuations in natural environments and limited enzymatic resources. Although his lab has several ongoing projects ranging from the development of new robust synthetic circuits to the study of antibiotic resistance and biofilms, all projects utilize synthetic biology to understand natural phenomena or to develop products for industrial and medical applications. His lab uses mathematical and computational approaches along with wet-lab experiments to probe and develop a more comprehensive understanding of the mechanisms that generate cellular plasticity and robustness.

Academic Responsibilities

I have the great pleasure of teaching two different courses:
Fall: Introductory Microbiology (MICR-233)
Spring: Microbial Physiology (MICR-332)

Grants

2019 NSF Funded Grant
Amount: $1,138,000
Title: Using a queueing framework to explore the design principles of synthetic circuits in microorganisms
Start date: August 1, 2019
Duration: 4 years
Principal Investigator: Nicholas C. Butzin
Award Number: 1922542
More here: https://www.nsf.gov/awardsearch/showAward?AWD_ID=1922542

2019 NSF SD EPSCoR Grant (Butzin as Investigator)
Amount: $3,828,361.00
Title: RII Track-1: Building on The 2020 Vision: Expanding Research, Education and Innovation in South Dakota
Start date: October 1, 2019
Duration: 5 years
Primary Investigators:
G. Melvin Ustad mel.ustad@sdstate.edu (Principal Investigator)
Award Number: 1849206

Work Experience

2017-present
Assistant Professor of Synthetic Biology, Department of Biology and Microbiology, South Dakota State
2016-2017
Research Scientist, Department of Physics, Virginia Tech
2012-2016
Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Department of Physics, Virginia Tech
2009-2012
Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Department of Molecular & Cell Biology, University of Connecticut
2005-2009
Graduate Research Assistant, Department of Biological Sciences, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee

Area(s) of Research

I am broadly interested in molecular microbial physiology and evolution, which I have studied in the past using traditional microbiology, molecular biology, and bioinformatic tools. However, these methods limit the analysis to one aspect of the cell (e.g. gene or protein, one pathway, etc.). I have moved towards the more holistic approach of Synthetic and Systems Biology. Current work utilizes several organisms including Escherichia coli, Mycoplasma, and a few thermophiles. We utilize these organisms and synthetic systems to study persistence, synthetic ecologies, bottlenecks, cellular response to stress, and other phenomena. We use both mathematical and computational methods alongside wet-lab experiments to probe and develop a more comprehensive understanding of the mechanisms that generate and maintain bacterial robustness. This combination of approaches encompasses several disciplines: microbiology, molecular and cell biology, engineering, physics, biophysics, and bioinformatics. Much of our work involves using cutting-edge techniques such as microfluidic devices and machine learning algorithms.

Applications of Research

The Butzin lab explores microbial systems using an evolutionary perspective and a synthetic biology approach. Our goal is to understand the principles behind robustness in both natural and synthetic microbial systems. Historically, the evolution of an organism or ecology is guided by fitness, but what makes an organism fit is difficult to define and often both circumstantial and dynamic. However, robustness may be a suitable metric of fitness for natural systems. Robustness describes the ability of a system to maintain its functions despite both extrinsic and intrinsic fluctuations. Natural systems are extremely complex, containing a multitude of feedback mechanisms and are subject to strong fluctuations (noise) making quantification of robustness difficult. As an alternative to traditional approaches, we employ synthetic biology to engineer simple genetic circuits with predictable functionality. Since synthetic circuits’ have reduced complexity and increased controllability compared to natural systems, they allow us to study the principles of natural network design in a tractable manner. By selecting components thought to be insulated from the host’s “natural circuitry” complex dynamics of the synthetic circuit can be studied while perturbing the environment in a natural way and consequently identifying hidden properties of native circuits. We are particularly interested in how individual cells cope with constant fluctuations in natural environments and limited enzymatic resources. The necessary quantitative measurements for such investigation at the single-cell level were prohibitively difficult to obtain until fairly recently. Using a combination of microfluidics and time-lapse microscopy, we can now quantify cellular responses to precisely controlled external signals. We have developed innovative techniques in microfluidics to this end, permitting imaging and quantification of live cellular responses and interactions in real time at the single-cell level or as a consortium. The resulting indispensable data from microfluidic experiments have informed in silico models and aided in providing a coherent mathematical understanding of phenomena such as entrainment. This approach continues to offer new insights into the evolutionary process that allows for a more fit organism by exploring the principles of microbial design and collective behaviors. In the Butzin lab, we use mathematical and computational approaches along with wet lab experiments to probe and develop a more comprehensive understanding of the mechanisms that generate cellular plasticity and robustness.