Engineering Life – a new generation of students emerges

A complex integrated microfluidic device for performing automated on-chip protein biochemistry

A complex integrated microfluidic device for performing automated on-chip protein biochemistry

The Master in Bioengineering is now shared by two EPFL schools – Life Sciences and Engineering – marking the emergence of a new student body.


The shift from a Master of Bioengineering in Life Sciences to a joint Master with the School of Engineering, headed by section director Professor William Pralong, suggests a significant trend in education at EPFL – a new generation of students who are more interdisciplinary than ever before. Along with MIT and Stanford University, EPFL is one of the few institutions to offer a parallel education in deep bio-science and advanced engineering techniques that focuses on the design and discovery of new molecules and organisms.

Design-oriented biology
“The times enable it, for we have reached a stage of critical knowledge about biology that allows for quantitative, design-oriented biology,” explains Director of Interfaculty Institute of Bioengineering at EPFL, Professor Jeffrey Hubbell.

Thanks to scientific initiatives like the Human Genome Project, there is an expansive amount of new biological information. But this information needs to be classified because it is hard to understand without a quantitative analysis.

EPFL research in engineering, such as the microfluidic work done by Tenure Track Assistant Professor Sebastian Maerkl, is making this daunting task more manageable. In Maerkl’s lab, biological experiments can be done with programmable fluid microchips containing over 700 valves per square centimeter (see photo).

This new research tool, which couples engineering and biology, allows researchers to run thousands of experiments with single yeast cells or track genetic promoters expressed by individual proteins in less time and with greater precision than before. This notable progress in technology in turn creates a wealth of information essential for understanding the design principles of nature.

One example of designing new organisms is the school’s participation in the international genetically engineered machine (iGEM) competition, where in 2009 they presented work done on light-sensitive proteins. These proteins, when activated by exposure to light, specifically induce the expression of a target gene – an advance that could have important repercussion in the domain of bioreactors by activating or deactivating protein production with a simple light-bulb placed in a reactor.

A new education model
The Master in Bioengineering has existed since 2007 alongside the Master in Biotechnology in the School of Life Sciences, but the decision to have the School of Engineering join the steering of this Master reinforces a more fundamental approach to hard technology with several new classes in engineering added to the curriculum.

“This new program reflects our wish to foster multi-disciplinary approaches to education and research in the life sciences and the adhesion of the EPFL campus as a whole to this philosophy,” explains the Dean of Life Sciences, Professor Didier Trono. “Like their colleagues pursuing a Master in Life Sciences and Technology, the Bioengineering students will receive an in-depth education in the basics of biology, while developing in parallel hard skills in several fields of engineering. They will then integrate this knowledge through concrete projects conducted in laboratories. Together, the graduates of our two programs will constitute a new breed of engineers in the life sciences, primed to address the bio-related challenges of our planet in the decades to come.”

Author: Michael Mitchell
Source: EPFL