The worst place to be when you’re sick these days is the hospital. So jokes Jim Collins, the co-director of Boston University’s Center for Biodynamics and a core founding member of the Wyss Institute at Harvard. Bacteria that are able to survive modern antibiotics are cropping up in hospitals nationwide and spreading outside the United States, creating a serious public health threat. That’s why the team over in the Collins Lab is studying how antibiotics work so they can make existing antibiotics better. This could help eliminate the growing problem of superbugs and infections in patients with prosthetics – artificial hips, knees and limbs.

On the third floor of Boston University’s Department of Biomedical Engineering, undergraduates, graduates and post doctorate students have been paving the way in the emerging fields of synthetic and systems biology. Both are relatively new areas — only about a decade old — according to Collins.

“These new areas are hot beds of innovation,” Collins said, who’s been working in his lab for over 10 years at the University, applying engineering principles to molecular biology.

Collins highlights the difference between synthetic and systems biology by describing how you might have played with your toys when you were a kid. Had you been the type who likes to tinker and put things together with an erector set you’d been using synthetic biology. Had you preferred to take your toys apart to figure out how they work, you would have been using systems biology. On the systems side, Collins said he’s most excited about his lab’s focus on antibiotics.

“Our approach is to use systems biology to gain insight into how antibiotics act, and to commandeer or harness those insights to enhance our activity in it, so to make the ones we have better,” Collins said. “We’ve shown, if you can inhibit or knock down certain aspects of bacteria, then you can make all existing antibiotics that much better.”

Collins’s team has been working with bio-films, which he compared to the “gunk on your teeth, or the stuff on the side of a ship.” They’re problematic, because the bacteria in bio-films are a thousand times more resistant to antibiotics. Therefore, if you get an artificial hip or an artificial knee, the major risk factor is that you could develop a bacterial infection, one that hasn’t stemmed from surgery.

Implants require surgery, and the only way to clear the infections in the implants is to operate, yet again, to remove the prostheses. Through the team’s research at Boston University, however, they’ve discovered a way to break up those bio-films that lead to infection without additional surgery, and they’ve made the existing antibiotics out there even stronger.

In the wet lab, housed in one of the many large buildings that fill Boston University’s campus, teams are performing experiments on living cells. From the shelves lined with glass beakers and bunsen burners, to the students in white lab jackets, an outsider might see just another classic science lab. Yet, the discoveries being made inside could continue to change the world.