- BS in Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry. Yale University (1976)
- MS in Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry. Yale University (1976)
- PhD in Chemistry. Harvard University (1979)
The Benner group has:
- Initiated synthetic biology as a field. The Benner group was the first to synthesize a gene for an enzyme, and used organic synthesis to prepare the first artificial genetic systems. These systems have been used to direct the synthesis of artificial proteins having unnatural amino acids, in FDA-approved clinical assays for HIV, hepatitis B and hepatitis C that improves the medical care of over 400,000 patients annually, and to support the first artificial chemical system capable of Darwinian evolution.
- Invented dynamic combinatorial chemistry, combining ideas from molecular evolution, enzymology, analytical chemistry, and organic chemistry to generate a strategy to discover small molecule therapeutic leads. A German company, Alantos, is today using this technology to develop drug leads.
- Established paleomolecular biology, where researchers resurrect ancestral proteins from extinct organisms for study in the laboratory, The strategy allows scientists to connect chemistry to function in biology, which is defined by an organism's fitness in a complex and changing environment.
- Helped found evolutionary bioinformatics, in 1991, launched one of the first web-based bioinformatics servers with Gaston Gonnet, generated the first naturally organized protein sequence databases, and helped develop the MasterCatalog that generated ca. $4 million in sales. This work also supported the first exhaustive matching of a modern protein sequence database, the first convincing tools to predict structure in proteins from sequence data, strategies to detect distant homologs using structure prediction, and "post-genomic" tools to detect changing protein function.
- National Science Foundation Graduate Fellow
- Junior Fellowship, Harvard Society of Fellows
- Dreyfus Award for Young Faculty, 1982
- Searle Scholar, 1984-86
- Sloan Foundation Fellow, 1984-86
- Anniversary Prize, Federation of European Biochemical Societies, 1993
- Nolan Summer Award, 1998
- Arun Gunthikonda Memorial Award, 1998
- Townes R. Leigh Commemorative Professor, 1999
- B. R. Baker Award, 2001
- Sigma Xi Senior Faculty Award 2005
- Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (Biology) 2015
- Honoris Causa, University of Croatia, Romania 2016
- Fellow of the International Society for the Study of the Origin of Life (ISSOL) 2017
Fluorinated oil-surfactant mixtures with the density of water: Artificial cells for synthetic biology
Roberto Laos, Steven Benner
17 (1) , Public Library of Science (2022) https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0252361
There is a rising interest in biotechnology for the compartmentalization of biochemical reactions in water droplets. Several applications, such as the widely used digital PCR, seek to encapsulate a single molecule in a droplet to be amplified. Directed evolution, another technology with growing popularity, seeks to replicate what happens in nature by encapsulating a single gene and the protein encoded by this gene, linking genotype with phenotype. Compartmentalizing reactions in droplets also allows the experimentalist to run millions of different reactions in parallel. Compartmentalization requires a fluid that is immiscible with water and a surfactant to stabilize the droplets. While there are fluids and surfactants on the market that have been used to accomplish encapsulation, there are reported concerns with these. Span® 80, for example, a commonly used surfactant, has contaminants that interfere with various biochemical reactions. Similarly, synthetic fluids distributed by the cosmetic industry allow some researchers to produce experimental results that can be published, but then other researchers fail to reproduce some of these protocols due to the unreliable nature of these products, which are not manufactured with the intent of being used in biotechnology. The most reliable fluids, immiscible with water and suitable for biochemical reactions, are fluorinated fluids. Fluorinated compounds have the peculiar characteristic of being immiscible with water while at the same time not mixing with hydrophobic molecules. This peculiar characteristic has made fluorinated fluids attractive because it seems to be the basis of their being biologically inert. However, commercially available fluorinated fluids have densities between 1.4 to 1.6 g/mL. The higher-than-water density of fluorinated oils complicates handling of the droplets since these would float on the fluid since the water droplets would be less dense. This can cause aggregation and coalescence of the droplets. Here, we report the synthesis, characterization, and use of fluorinated polysiloxane oils that have densities similar to the one of water at room temperature, and when mixed with non-ionic fluorinated surfactants, can produce droplets encapsulating biochemical reactions. We show how droplets in these emulsions can host many biological processes, including PCR, DNA origami, rolling circle amplification (RCA), and Taqman® assays. Some of these use unnatural DNA built from an Artificially Expanded Genetic Information System (AEGIS) with six nucleotide "letters".
Catalytic Synthesis of Polyribonucleic Acid on Prebiotic Rock Glasses
Craig A. Jerome, Hyo-Joong Kim, Stephen J. Mojzsis, Steven A. Benner, and Elisa Biondi
Reported here are experiments that show that ribonucleoside triphosphates are converted to polyribonucleic acid when incubated with rock glasses similar to those likely present 4.3-4.4 billion years ago on the Hadean Earth surface, where they were formed by impacts and volcanism. This polyribonucleic acid averages 100-300 nucleotides in length, with a substantial fraction of 3',-5'-dinucleotide linkages. Chemical analyses, including classical methods that were used to prove the structure of natural RNA, establish a polyribonucleic acid structure for these products. The polyribonucleic acid accumulated and was stable for months, with a synthesis rate of 2 x 10-3 pmoles of triphosphate polymerized each hour per gram of glass (25°C, pH 7.5). These results suggest that polyribonucleotides were available to Hadean environments if triphosphates were. As many proposals are emerging describing how triphosphates might have been made on the Hadean Earth, the process observed here offers an important missing step in models for the prebiotic synthesis of RNA.
Agnostic Life Finder (ALF) for Large-Scale Screening of Martian Life During In Situ Refueling
Spacek, J. & Benner, S.A.
(2022) 22, 8, DOI:10.1089/ast.2021.0070
Before the first humans depart for Mars in the next decade, hundreds of tons of martian water-ice must be harvested to produce propellant for the return vehicle, a process known as in situ resource utilization (ISRU). We describe here an instrument, the Agnostic Life Finder (ALF), that is an inexpensive life-detection add-on to ISRU. ALF exploits a well-supported view that informational genetic biopolymers in life in water must have two structural features: (1) Informational biopolymers must carry a repeating charge; they must be polyelectrolytes. (2) Their building blocks must fit into an aperiodic crystal structure; the building blocks must be size-shape regular. ALF exploits the first structural feature to extract polyelectrolytes from ?10 cubic meters of mined martian water by applying a voltage gradient perpendicularly to the water's flow. This gradient diverts polyelectrolytes from the flow toward their respective electrodes (polyanions to the anode, polycations to the cathode), where they are captured in cartridges before they encounter the electrodes. There, they can later be released to analyze their building blocks, for example, by mass spectrometry or nanopore. Upstream, martian cells holding martian informational polyelectrolytes are disrupted by ultrasound. To manage the (unknown) conductivity of the water due to the presence of salts, the mined water is preconditioned by electrodialysis using porous membranes. ALF uses only resources and technology that must already be available for ISRU. Thus, life detection is easily and inexpensively integrated into SpaceX or NASA ISRU missions.
Thermodynamic Parameters and Design Considerations for Expanded Alphabet PZ and GZ Base Pairs in DNA
Kahn, J. D., Miffin, T., Sharp, K. K., Wang, X., Hoshika, S., Sun, H., Benner, S. A., Mathews, D. H.
, AP Cell Press (2021) 120(3):220a, DOI:10.1016/j.bpj.2020.11.1475
As expanded nucleic acid alphabets such as the AEGIS system become more prevalent in molecular biology, synthetic biology and DNA design, it becomes more essential to be able to make reliable predictions for the thermodynamics of secondary structures that include these new base pairs. Using previous work as well as new UV absorbance melting curves for DNA oligonucleotide duplexes, we have generated new nearest-neighbor parameters for the free energy, enthalpy, and entropy of all dinucleotide steps that include P:Z base pairs. The results are similar but show clear differences from previous work. We have also determined the nearest neighbor values for all dinucleotide steps containing the stable G:Z mismatch, as well as parameters for dangling ends and terminal mismatches containing P and Z nucleotides. Finally, we show that including P and Z bases in DNA design algorithms makes target structures easier to design and more robust (in silico), and that it is essential to include consideration of the G:Z pair to avoid stable unwanted structures and thereby achieve the improved performance.
The role of thrifty genes in the origin of alcoholism: A narrative review and hypothesis
Carn, D., Lanaspa, M. A., Benner, S. A., Andrews, P., Dudley, R., Tolan, D. R., Johnson, R. J.
Alcohol.: Clin. Exp. Res.
, Wiley-Blackwell (2021) 10.1111/acer.14655
In this narrative review, we present the hypothesis that key mutations in two genes, occurring 15 and 10 million years ago (MYA), were individually and then collectively adaptive for ancestral humans during periods of starvation, but are maladaptive in modern civilization (i.e., "thrifty genes"), with the consequence that these genes not only increase our risk today for obesity, but also for alcoholism. Both mutations occurred when ancestral apes were experiencing loss of fruit availability during periods of profound climate change or environmental upheaval. The silencing of uricase (urate oxidase) activity 15 MYA enhanced survival by increasing the ability for fructose present in dwindling fruit to be stored as fat, a consequence of enhanced uric acid production during fructose metabolism that stimulated lipogenesis and blocked fatty acid oxidation. Likewise, a mutation in class IV alcohol dehydrogenase ~10 MYA resulted in a remarkable 40-fold increase in the capacity to oxidize ethanol (EtOH), which allowed our ancestors to ingest fallen, fermenting fruit. In turn, the EtOH ingested could activate aldose reductase that stimulates the conversion of glucose to fructose, while uric acid produced during EtOH metabolism could further enhance fructose production and metabolism. By aiding survival, these mutations would have allowed our ancestors to generate more fat, primarily from fructose, to survive changing habitats due to the Middle Miocene disruption and also during the late-Miocene aridification of East Africa. Unfortunately, the enhanced ability to metabolize and utilize EtOH may now be acting to increase our risk for alcoholism, which may be yet another consequence of once-adaptive thrifty genes.
Ultra-rapid detection of SARS-CoV-2 in public workspace environments
Yaren, O., McCarter, J., Phadke, N., Bradley, K. M., Overton, B., Yang, Z., Ranade, S., Patil, K., Bangale, R., Benner, S. A.
, Public Library of Science (2021) 10.1371/journal.pone.0240524, DOI:10.1101/2020.09.29.20204131
Managing the pandemic caused by SARS-CoV-2 requires new capabilities in testing, including the possibility of identifying, in minutes, infected individuals as they enter spaces where they must congregate in a functioning society, including workspaces, schools, points of entry, and commercial business establishments. Here, the only useful tests (a) require no sample transport, (b) require minimal sample manipulation, (c) can be performed by unlicensed individuals, (d) return results on the spot in much less than one hour, and (e) cost no more than a few dollars. The sensitivity need not be as high as normally required by the FDA for screening asymptomatic carriers (as few as 10 virions per sample), as these viral loads are almost certainly not high enough for an individual to present a risk for forward infection. This allows tests specifically useful for this pandemic to trade-off unneeded sensitivity for necessary speed, simplicity, and frugality. In some studies, it was shown that viral load that creates forward-infection risk may exceed 105 virions per milliliter, easily within the sensitivity of an RNA amplification architecture, but unattainable by antibody-based architectures that simply target viral antigens. Here, we describe such a test based on a displaceable probe loop amplification architecture.
Abiotic Synthesis of Nucleoside 5'-Triphosphates with Nickel Borate and Cyclic Trimetaphosphate (CTMP)
Kim, H.J.., Benner, S.A.
(2021) 21(3), DOI:10.1089/ast.2020.2264
While nucleoside 5'-triphosphates are precursors for RNA in modern biology, the presumed difficulty of making these triphosphates on Hadean Earth has caused many prebiotic researchers to consider other activated species for the prebiotic synthesis of RNA. We report here that nickel(II), in the presence of borate, gives substantial amounts (2–3%) of nucleoside 5'-triphosphates upon evaporative heating in the presence of urea, salts, and cyclic trimetaphosphate (CTMP). Also recovered are nucleoside 5'-diphosphates and nucleoside 5'-monophosphates, both likely arising from 5'-triphosphate intermediates. The total level of 5'-phosphorylation is typically 30%. Borate enhances the regiospecificity of phosphorylation, with increased amounts of other phosphorylated species seen in its absence. Experimentally supported paths are already available to make nucleosides in environments likely to have been present on Hadean Earth soon after a midsized 1021 to 1023 kg impactor, which would also have delivered nickel to the Hadean surface. Further, sources of prebiotic CTMP continue to be proposed. Thus, these results fill in one of the few remaining steps needed to demystify the prebiotic synthesis of RNA and support a continuous model from atmospheric components to oligomeric RNA that is lacking only a mechanism to obtain homochirality in the product RNA.
The Limits to Organic Life in the Solar System: From Cold Titan to Hot Venus
Benner, S. A., & Spacek, J.
, LPI (2021) 2629, 4003.
Synthetic biology, physical organic chemistry, and other experimental sciences help assess here on Earth the probability of life in alien environments, and guide our search for it in observational and mission astronomy. These have given us "Agnostic Life Finders" (ALFs) for worlds where environments are similar to Earth's. However, they also guide a search for life in exotic environments. We will present by lab experiments showing organic processes that may support life in acidic Venusian clouds.
When Did Life Likely Emerge on Earth in an RNA-First Process?
S. A. Benner, E. A. Bell, E. Biondi, R. Brasser, T. Carell, H.-J. Kim, S. J. Mojzsis, A. Omran, M. A. Pasek, D. Trail
2 , Chemistry Europe (2020) e1900035
The widespread presence of ribonucleic acid (RNA) catalysts and cofactors in the Earth's biosphere today suggests that RNA was the first biopolymer to support Darwinian evolution. However, most "path-hypotheses" to generate building blocks for RNA require reduced nitrogen-containing compounds not made in useful amounts in the CO2-N2-H2O atmospheres of the Hadean. We review models for Earth's impact history that invoke a single ~1023 kg impactor (Moneta) to account for measured amounts of platinum, gold, and other siderophilic ("iron-loving") elements on the Earth and Moon. If it were the last sterilizing impactor, by reducing the atmosphere but not the mantle Moneta, would have opened a "window of opportunity" for RNA synthesis, a period when RNA precursors rained from the atmosphere onto land holding oxidized minerals that stabilize advanced RNA precursors and RNA. Surprisingly, this combination of physics, geology, and chemistry suggests a time when RNA formation was most probable, ~120±100 million years after Moneta's impact, or ~4.36±0.1 billion years ago. Uncertainties in this time are driven by uncertainties in rates of productive atmosphere loss and amounts of sub-aerial land.
Building better polymerases: Engineering the replication of expanded genetic alphabets
Ouaray, Z., Benner, S. A., Georgiadis, M. M., Richards, N. G. J.
J. Biol. Chem.
(2020) 295(50):17046-17059, DOI:10.1074/jbc.REV120.013745
DNA polymerases are today used throughout scientific research, biotechnology, and medicine, in part for their ability to interact with unnatural forms of DNA created by synthetic biologists. Here especially, natural DNA polymerases often do not have the "performance specifications" needed for transformative technologies. This creates a need for science-guided rational (or semi-rational) engineering to identify variants that replicate unnatural base pairs (UBPs), unnatural backbones, tags, or other evolutionarily novel features of unnatural DNA. In this review, we provide a brief overview of the chemistry and properties of replicative DNA polymerases and their evolved variants, focusing on the Klenow fragment of Taq DNA polymerase (Klentaq). We describe comparative structural, enzymatic, and molecular dynamics studies of WT and Klentaq variants, complexed with natural or noncanonical substrates. Combining these methods provides insight into how specific amino acid substitutions distant from the active site in a Klentaq DNA polymerase variant (ZP Klentaq) contribute to its ability to replicate UBPs with improved efficiency compared with Klentaq. This approach can therefore serve to guide any future rational engineering of replicative DNA polymerases.
(View publication page for Steven Benner)
- Chemical genetics
- Synthetic biology
- Planetary biology
- Systems biology
- The connection of natural history to the physical sciences
With cartoons by Jake Fuller, Steven Benner explains how scientists tackle big questions: What is life? How did it begin? If we encounter life in our galactic travels, how would we know it? Learn more.