nanoHUB-U: Biological Engineering - Cellular Design Principles

Explore established and emerging cellular design principles and learn how cells function as the basis for cellular engineering.

  1. bioengineering
  2. bionano
  3. cells


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Course Overview

Course Description

A self-paced course on the design principles underlying mechanisms of cellular and biomolecular functions such as cell architecture, energy storage and conversion, sensing and signaling, communication, time keeping, molecular synthesis, memory, and motility. Emphasis will be placed on the chemical, physical, and mathematical features that determine the performance of the biological device. Topics cover both cellular/biochemical processes and molecular/genetic circuits. Examples are presented from reverse engineering of natural systems and design of new synthetic systems.

Living cells have unique functions that can be harnessed by engineers to tackle human problems in energy, water, food, and health.

Historically, living cells were considered too difficult to predictably engineer because of their complexity, vulnerability, and continuous change in state. The elucidation of the design principles that underlie cell function along with increasing numbers of examples of hybrid cell based devices are slowly erasing that notion.

In this class you will learn about these established and emerging cellular design principles and begin to view cells as machines. This knowledge can then be applied to non-living devices that mimic and communicate with cells. You will also be introduced to current and emerging living/non-living biohybrid devices such as biohybrid robots and neural implants.

What You Will Learn

  • How fundamental engineering principles apply to living cells.
  • What engineering principles can tells us about how cells function.
  • Established and emerging equations, models, and design curves that can be used to tune, re-engineer, or build new cells.
  • A framework for measuring and controlling cells as microdevices.
  • An introduction to emerging biohybrid devices.


  • A basic knowledge in cell biology and math up to calculus and differential equations.
  • Anyone with knowledge of undergraduate engineering or science could successfully take the course

Course Outline

Unit 1 - Introduction

L1.1: Cells by the Numbers
L1.2: Cell as a Machine
L1.3: Cell as a Machine: Power Consumption
L1.4: Design of Photoreceptors as a Biosensor

Unit 2 - Cell Architecture

L2.1: Design Principles of Organelle Size
L2.2: Design Principles of Organelle Size II
L2.3: Design Principles of Organelle Number
L2.4: Biological Networks

Unit 3 - Gene Circuits

L3.1: Introduction to Transcription Networks
L3.2: Simple Model of Gene Expression
L3.3: Protein Half Lives
L3.4: Autoregulation
L3.5: Feed-Forward Loops I
L3.6: Feed-Forward Loops II

Unit 4 - Cell Dynamics

L4.1: Biological Oscillations I
L4.2: Biological Oscillations II

Unit 5 - Cellular Devices

L5.1: Intro to Living Biohybrids
L5.2: Cell Device Biointerface
L5.3: Cells as Biosensors I
L5.4: Cells as Biosensors II

Unit 6 - The Future

L6.1: Synthetic Life
L6.2: Ethics
L6.3: Wrap Up

Course Resources

  • A free account is required to access some course components.
  • Online quizzes to quickly assess understanding of material after most video lectures.
  • An online forum, hosted by nanoHUB. Students enrolled in the course will be able to interact with one another.


 Biological Engineering: Cellular Design Principles first published on edX, February 2017 and nanoHUB-U, May 2017



Creative Commons BY License


This self-paced course is available at no cost.

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