Center for Agricultural Synthetic Biology

The Center for Agricultural Synthetic Biology (CASB) seeks to put Tennessee at the forefront of the intersection of agriculture and sustainability. Synthetic biology uses computational strategies to design DNA for installation into organisms relying on engineering principles.  Agricultural synthetic biology seeks to make better crop plants, and food microbes for health and sustainability goals.

Researcher in lab coat uses a tool to insert plant material in a test tube

Center for Agricultural Synthetic Biology | 2640 Morgan Circle Drive |
Knoxville, Tennessee 37996

The Center for Synthetic Biology was co-founded by Professor Neal Stewart and Assistant Professor Scott Lenaghan in 2018.

Stewart is a faculty member of the Department of Plant Sciences and holds the Ivan Racheff Chair of Excellence in Plant Molecular Genetics. Stewart and his laboratory conduct research in plant molecular genetics, plant biotechnology, risk assessment, and biofuel. Stewart’s research has been supported by various granting agencies including the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and various other US military agencies, Department of Agriculture, Department of Energy, Environmental Protection Agency, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and National Science Foundation.​​​

Lenaghan is a faculty member in the Department of Food Sciences. His research is focused on the development and use of synthetic biology for global food security. His expertise cover a wide-range of disciplines, with a primary focus on engineering biological systems, biomaterials, and devices that utilize cutting-edge synthetic biology tools and approaches.


plants in black and white with some leaves glowing green in night vision

Funded by DARPA

CASB aims to create next-generation self-powered biological sensors engineered to simultaneously sense and report at least 4 relevant environmental stimuli. Orthogonal and modular synthetic circuits for sensing and reporting will be installed in plants as well as in microbial sensing interfaces. These sense-and-report plants, known as phytosensors, will also be engineered for induced physiological and ecological robustness.  Potato plants will be repurposed as environmental sensors to protect national interests, those living in war zones, and soldiers from chemical weapons.

Two student smile as they collaborate on a project

Funded by NSF

The project focuses on developing a graduate certificate in plant synthetic biology (synbio). This certification program is being designed by faculty at the Universities of Florida, Purdue, and Tennessee and would be available to graduate students at all of these institutions, as well as industry members interested in the certification. The diversity of skills and knowledge required to conduct plant synbio research creates an opportunity for multi-university collaboration, which will provide students with lectures from experts in the field as well as the ability to collaborate with students from other institutions. A key component of the certificate is the ability to communicate effectively with researchers and colleagues across disciplines, from engineering to fundamental sciences to social sciences. It is this interdisciplinary training that is key to success in synthetic biology. 

Presence of four cyclospora cayetanensis oocysts, zoomed on microscope, which look like three clear and one red orbs floating in blue water

The primary goal of this work is to investigate gamma radiation, UV ozonation, chlorine dioxide gas, and a library of chemicals to identify inactivation methods of oocyst sporulation. The secondary goal is to utilize a machine learning algorithm to automate the identification and analysis of Cyclospora oocysts. Cyclospora cayetanensis is a ubiquitous foodborne parasite that causes gastrointestinal illness in humans. Although it is difficult to trace Cyclospora infections to a single product, foodborne infections are primarily from the consumption of produce. While molecular techniques can be applied as a sensitive tool to identify Cyclospora oocysts, the molecular data on the viability and infectivity of oocysts is not available. Currently, the viability of oocyst can only be assessed by analysis of sporulation rates, which must be determined microscopically by a trained investigator. This inability to rapidly determine oocyst viability creates a significant bottleneck for testing new control measures. While the primary beneficiaries of this project will be the water treatment and produce industries, the automated image analysis system that will be developed will lower the barrier of entry for researchers, and increase the number of researchers focused on Cyclospora and other parasite important to the produce industry.  

An infographic with a cycle reading, "1. decomposition and necrobione" at the dirt and a chalk marking of a body, "2. Amendments to soil," "3. Soil Microbiome," "4. Plant composition and matabolome," at trees, "5. Special signature," beside a sun with rays bouncing off trees reading "reflectance," and rays coming from trees reading "Autoflorescence," "6. UAV detection" above a drone, and "7. Successful body detection" on an arrow pointing down to the ground from the drone

Funded by DARPA

Human remains are often obscured from aerial detection by dense canopy cover. CASB aims to use existing vegetation to enable standoff detection of signatures in plants that indicate a body is nearby. In collaboration with the University of Tennessee Forensic Anthropology Center, cadavers will be placed on the soil surface at the Anthropology Research Facility. Information about donor history will be compared to soil chemistry, soil and plant metabolomics, and plant spectra. Methods include lab-based analysis as well as standoff detection using both ground-based and unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) mounted equipment. Data will be analyzed with multivariate methods and with machine learning. The goals are to integrate a reductionist mechanism of body decomposition and environmental interactions to a landscape and systems view using remote sensing of widespread, invasive plants as the informative interface.

Poplar trees grow in pots on a platform under lights in a greenhouse

Funded by DOE

The project goal is to attain robust biomass of trees under abiotic environmental stress conditions via genetic engineering. Abiotic stress-resistance genes, especially to water deficit-, salt-, and temperature-stress, need to be under inducible regulatory control.  We are designing, building, and testing stress-inducible synthetic plant promoters to drive resistance genes. In addition, we expect to synthesize tissue specific promoters to be induced by various environmental stresses. Omics data are used to discover cis-regulatory DNA motifs that may be used to construct synthetic promoters.  The synthetic promoters are then tested under appropriate stimuli in engineered plants to use toward development of environmentally-robust poplar.

Meet Peter the Robot

This unique automated platform can be used for rapid design-built-test cycles, direct writing of DNA on to single cells, gene editing, and high-throughput automated production of single cells from crop plants and cultures. Other CASB instruments include a Fluorescence-Inducing Laser Projector, Optical Tweezers Platform, Laser Tweezers Microscope, and Confocal Microscope.

Select plasmids may be requested through Addgene.



Headshot of Scott Lenaghan

Scott Lenaghan

Associate Professor and Director

Headshot of Neal Stewart

Neal Stewart

Professor and Director

Headshot of Alessandro Occhialini

Alessandro Occhialini

Assistant Professor

Graduate Students

Postdoctoral Ass

Professional Staff

Headshot of Lezlee Dice

Lezlee Dice

Research Associate

Generic place holder with person clip art

Stacee Harbison

Research Specialist

Headshot of Lana Howe

Lana Howe

Research Specialist

Generic place holder with person clip art

Brianna Jacobs

Research Technician

Headshot of Li Li

Li Li

Research Associate

Headshot of Mitra Mazarei

Mitra Mazarei

Research Scientist

Generic place holder with person clip art

Nikki Reuter

Researcher I

Generic place holder with person clip art

Yongil Yang

Research Scientist