Our stream uses synthetic biology approaches to tackle human and environmental health issues. Synthetic biology is an interdisciplinary field at the interface between biology and engineering. In our stream, we design and test biosensors – synthetic DNA or RNA molecules that can detect a target (ex. bacteria, bacterial signaling molecules, or human disease biomarkers) and emit a detectable signal (ex. a color change or a fluorescent signal). We also use in vitro selection (“evolution in a test tube”) to select for short DNA or RNA sequences (aptamers) that can bind strongly and specifically to target proteins or small molecules. These aptamers can be then be used to detect targets in future biosensor designs.


The Molecular Diagnostics stream is working on developing biosensors for a variety of targets that have either human or environmental health applications. On the human health side, we are working on projects ranging from selecting aptamers against biomarkers of cancer (to be used in a diagnostic biosensor) to designing a biosensor that detects a bacterial signaling molecule involved in biofilm formation (biofilms play a role in antibiotic resistance). On the environmental health side, we are working on designing biosensors to detect fecal indicator bacteria in water and on developing aptamer selection methods for small molecules like pesticides. Our projects all have the common theme of using synthetic DNA or RNA molecules to design new tools to address human and environmental health challenges.


Students in this stream learn molecular biology techniques such as PCR, gel electrophoresis, nucleic acid purification and quantification, in vitro transcription, and reverse transcription. Students also learn about biosensor design and develop proposals for their own biosensor designs. In the spring, students form small groups and work on research projects related to either aptamer selections (against a chosen target) or biosensor design and testing. These projects continue through the summer and the fall and culminate in a final poster presentation. Depending on their chosen project, students also learn additional techniques such as bacterial transformation, restriction enzyme digestion, and/or DNA sequencing data analysis.

  • Dr. Catherine Spirito

    Research Educator

  • Dr. Wade Winkler

    Faculty Advisor

  • Dr. Ian White

    Faculty Advisor

University of Maryland

Office of the Senior Vice President and Provost

The First-Year Innovation & Research Experience

Dr. Patrick Killion

Director of Discovery-Based Learning

Email: pkillion@umd.edu

Tel: 301-405-0057