FRI Biochemistry Stream

Microbe Hackers

biochemistry, biology, genetic engineering, microbiology, molecular biology, synthetic biology

our research

Our Research

The Microbe Hackers stream focuses on synthetic biology: the genetic engineering or modifications of organisms for a novel purpose or function, hence the “hackers.” And, we primarily work with bacteria, hence the “microbe.” Researchers in our stream are involved in all steps of the research process, from project ideation and finding new directions to go in, to performing all of the research experiments, and to writing up their results for presentations or as parts of research publications. We design plasmids, DNA sequences, primers, and simulate cloning reactions in silico.  Furthermore, we test genetically modified bacteria and conduct bioassays to confirm if DNA sequences alter bacterial behavior.

Microbe Hackers Research Projects

  • Evolutionary Stability (EvoStab).  This project investigates of the burden, mutation rates, and how to make genetic devices (DNA sequences) more stable over time.
  • Cyanobacterial Biosensors. We characterize the growth of cyanobacteria (several Oscillatoria species) and genetically engineer the bacteria to serve as biosensors.
  • Caffeinated Coli. We study bacteria that have been modified to be 'addicted' to caffeine in order to grow and develop bioassays to quantify caffeine, and other molecular compounds.
  • Bee Project. We aim to engineer bee gut bacteria in an effort to better understand the bee genome and how it impacts bee behavior and health.



Our Strategy

Our abbreviated mission statement is, “our students are our product.” We aim to prepare our researchers to be ready for upper division UT courses, further education, additional research experiences, or the work force. Our research curriculum is designed to emphasize student growth and learning, both at the bench and on a personal level. Students use scientific equipment (e.g., micropipette, incubator, spectrophotometer, centrifuge, autoclave etc.) and participate in experimental design, project management, and collaborative research. In addition, we develop transferable skills, such as data analysis, scientific communication (verbal & written), peer-review, and navigating scientific literature. 

Microbe Hackers researchers focus on sterile laboratory skills related to molecular biology, microbiology, and synthetic biology:

  • growing bacterial cultures, measuring bacterial growth through spectrophotometry, streaking bacterial colonies
  • cloning: digestion/ligation and Golden Gate Assembly techniques
  • Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR)
  • Agarose gel electrophoresis
  • bacterial transformation (genetic engineering)
  • DNA sequencing (Sanger and/or NextGen Sequencing)
  • using modern plate readers for measuring fluorescence and/or bacterial growth
research impact

Our Impact

The research of the Microbe Hackers is focused on improving and expanding synthetic biology research and knowledge. Our cyanobacteria biosensors—or biological systems (usually cells) that can specifically detect a molecule and then report that back to the user (us)—can be especially useful for environmental purposes. Some of our research is directed towards the development of more efficient and inexpensive biosensors than current existing methods.

Our newest Bee Project aims to gain a better understanding of Colony Collapse Disorder, which is when a beehive loses many of its worker bees. By studying the function of genes in the bee genome, we can potentially mitigate this issue. 

We also develop some of our research for educational purposes so that high school students throughout Texas are exposed to the exciting field of Synthetic Biology.

Our Team

Profile image of Dennis Mishler

Dennis Mishler

  • Assistant Professor of Practice
  • Freshman Research Initiative
  • College of Natural Sciences

Dr. Mishler leads the Microbe Hackers undergraduate research stream within the FRI program. He also co-organizes and co-advises the UT Austin iGEM team with Professor Barrick. This commitment involves a spring and fall course on synthetic biology research as well as a summer research experience.

Telephone Number:5124710486
Building: NHB
Room Number:1.412C
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Profile image of Jeffrey E. Barrick

Jeffrey E. Barrick

  • Associate Professor
  • Molecular Biosciences


Course Credit
Research Outcomes