ChBE Seminar Series: ‘High-Throughput Experimentation Meets Nanotechnology and Synthetic Biology for Programming Cellular Function’

Maria Cabezas, research assistant professor at Northwestern University.The Chemical and Biological Engineering Department presents their spring 2024 seminar series featuring guest speaker Maria Cabezas, research assistant professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering at Northwestern University, who will give a presentation on “High-Throughput Experimentation Meets Nanotechnology and Synthetic Biology for Programming Cellular Function.” This seminar will take place on Wednesday, March 27, from 3:15–4:30 p.m. in room 108 of Perlstein Hall.


Programming cellular outputs is a long-standing goal relevant to biotechnology, drug discovery, and engineering. During this presentation, I will give an overview of high-throughput strategies that utilize nanotechnology and synthetic biology to program cellular function. First, I will introduce a massively parallel yet nano-precise patterning approach that enables the creation of biomimetic surfaces covered with proteins arranged in a known pattern, size, and surface composition. This technique allows for the creation of biologically relevant surfaces that can be used to study cell differentiation, perform high- throughput drug discovery assays, among other applications. This work highlights the importance of nanopatterning cellular architecture to achieve uniformity in the extracellular environment. Next, I will discuss the development of an in vitro biodiscovery pipeline that enables the identification of new peptide antimicrobials and therapeutics. Our cell-free approach enables a greater understanding of antimicrobial peptide biosynthesis and provides a tool for the discovery and engineering of novel compounds. Taken together, these approaches offer attractive avenues that advance fields relevant to many areas across multiple length scales.


Maria Cabezas is a research assistant professor in Professor Shana Kelley’s lab at Northwestern University, Department of Biomedical Engineering. Cabezas received her Ph.D. in Chemistry from Northwestern University, under the supervision of Professors Chad A. Mirkin and Milan Mrksich in 2018, and followed with post-doctoral training in synthetic biology under Professor Michael Jewett at the same institution. Her graduate work focused on developing high-throughput cell-free assays for the direct measurement of protein activity and combined mass spectrometry with nanofabrication to study stem cell differentiation. Her scientific achievements were acknowledged with an Outstanding Research Award from the International Institute of Nanotechnology in 2017. For her post-doctoral work in Jewett’s lab, Cabezas developed strategies that leverage high- throughput automated liquid handling and cell-free systems to accelerate the design and characterization of genetic components for novel microbial cell hosts, as well as enabled strategies to facilitate discovery of antimicrobial peptides. As an independent researcher, Cabezas is interested in bringing in lessons from her previous high-throughput experimentation work for accelerating the development of biosensors for the measurement of biomarkers and is leading researchers in the Kelley lab through various interdisciplinary collaborations which span various academic labs and industries.