George Lu's laboratory focused on a class of gas-filled protein nanostructures, and explores their unique material, mechanical and acoustic properties to enable noninvasive imaging and remote control of engineered cells for research and cell-based therapies.
Prior to joining Rice, George Lu’s Ph.D. research at UC San Diego focused on membrane protein structural biology before he transitioned to his postdoctoral research on protein engineering in the laboratory of Dr. Mikhail Shapiro at Caltech. There, he studies gas vesicles (GVs), a class of gas-filled hollow protein nanostructures evolved in photosynthetic microbes for buoyancy regulation. GVs are usually several hundreds of nanometers in size and made exclusively of proteins, which form a 2-nm shell that allows gas to freely exchange but prevents the formation of liquid water inside. These biogenic nanoscale gas compartments are fully genetically encodable and possess interesting mechanical and material properties. George Lu led the projects to explore beyond their utilities in ultrasound imaging, and develop GVs as “erasable” MRI contrast agents and optical coherence tomography (OCT) contrast agents. For these pioneering works, he was recognized as the Young Investigator of the Year by the World Molecular Imaging Society in 2018. George has co-authored more than 20 peer-reviewed publications, including a lead-authored article featured on the cover of Nature Materials.
George Lu was recruited to Rice Bioengineering through the university’s Synthetic Biology Initiative. His lab is supported by the $2 million first-time, tenure-track faculty grant from the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT) and the NIH Pathway to Independence (K99/R00) award.
The Laboratory for Synthetic Macromolecular Assemblies focuses on the engineering of a class of protein assemblies named gas vesicles (GVs). GVs were discovered in certain photosynthetic microbes such as cyanobacteria, which express and assemble them inside cells to float to the surface of the water for maximal photosynthesis. The hollow nanoscale gas compartments of GVs give rise to many interesting mechanical and material properties, and often these properties are genetically tunable by their protein sequences. Research in the past few years leverages these properties and establishes the utilities of GVs as reporter genes for ultrasound imaging, MRI, and optical coherence tomography. In addition, GVs enable the spatial manipulation and control of cells through ways such as acoustic tweezers and inertial cavitation. These technologies opened up a new frontier of noninvasive deep-tissue imaging and control of genetically engineered cells, and have the potential impact especially in cell-based therapies, which currently lack an efficient method to monitor and modulate cellular activities in vivo.
The lab employs multidisciplinary approaches in protein engineering, synthetic biology, chemical biology, and computational biology to understand the biophysics of these protein nanostructures and to engineer novel biomedical applications based on their unique properties. Current research includes several interrelated directions: Structure and the assembly mechanism of gas vesicles, design and evolution of novel gas-filled protein nanostructures, design of GV-based gene circuits, development of ultrasound imaging and focused ultrasound methods, and translation of the technologies towards cell-based therapies.