What is synthetic biology?
What’s new about synthetic biology is that instead of using genetic material from existing organisms, it uses computers to design new DNA sequences (genes or entire genomes) which are then chemically synthesised in the laboratory. It also involves using natural genetic components to design novel genetic sequences that encode new biological parts and devices. …
Scientists aim to create more cost-effective, large-scale solutions for DNA sequencing and DNA synthesis, leading to breakthroughs in new applications for medicine (drugs and diagnostic devices), self-replicating materials, improved food and energy production, as well as expanding our knowledge of biological processes.
Breakthroughs in synthetic biology have already been made. For example, a team of researchers at the University of Edinburgh recently designed and engineered bacteria for use as biological sensors which detect the presence of arsenic in water. Chemists in various countries have also engineered organisms (including yeast) to produce small molecules, chemicals and drugs. They have also modified organisms to produce hydrocarbons – generating ethanol from plant matter. Synthetic biology thus has enormous potential in virtually every aspect of life and economics, including manufacturing as well as health care, biofuels, food production, and environmental remediation.
Real-world synthetic biology
Until now, Tyers has focused on the systematic dissection of natural biological systems by mass spectrometry, genetics and chemical genomics, but he strongly believes that synthetic biology is the logical next step for him – and for life sciences in general. Synthetic biology is a new discipline where various branches of science, including physics, informatics, chemistry and engineering are now beginning to converge. “Two hundred years from now,” he predicts, “people will look back at the amazing things being done in synthetic biology in the next decade or two and see this as a watershed in science and technology.” Alternatively, Tyers adds, if we don’t invest in synthetic biology now, we may miss an outstanding opportunity to tackle the massive problems we face in energy, food production, disease and climate change.
One of the challenges of synthetic biology, according to Tyers, is to make large-scale synthesis of DNA much cheaper and more efficient. Researchers are currently trying to build bacteria, chromosomes and even simple fungi from scratch, creating biological ‘systems’ by engineering genetic components, and Tyers says that this not only takes us to the frontiers of biology but also drives innovation in other fields. For example, synthetic biology will require new computational platforms and new concepts in computing science.
The creation of organisms capable of capturing and storing excess carbon dioxide, producing biofuels or biopharmaceuticals, or even an artificial pancreas to end diabetic dependence on insulin injections – these are just a few of the potential real world applications of synthetic biology. But if we can take genes and genomes apart and rebuild them from scratch, then the sky is the limit. Tyers argues that the negative image of ‘green goo’ portrayed by some critics is little more than fear mongering – synthetically engineered organisms would not only have ‘fail-safe’ mechanisms, but also would have no chance of survival in the wild because they could not compete with the superior fitness of natural organisms honed by billions of years of evolution.
Even though synthetic biology may seem like a quantum leap for many observers, this impending revolution is simply part of a continuum, according to Tyers. “Synthetic biology is the logical progression of my own research programme,” Tyers declares, “and where everyone else is heading in the long run. It is the melting pot of science.”
Despite the excitement, some biologists adopt a more conservative approach. “Some synthetic biology projects are viewed as mere tinkering,” says Tyers, “and there is sometimes a tension between conventional molecular biologists and synthetic biologists. But as the technology progresses, people will wonder how they did without synthetic biology”
To stimulate interest in synthetic biology, SULSA is sponsoring up to six teams of students from Scotland to enter the international Genetically Engineered Machines competition (iGEM) at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) later this year. The iGEM event may seem more like fiction than science, but some of the spin-offs are serious business, with some of the “biological parts” created by the students being stored in a library called the Registry of Standard Biological Parts, including the building blocks for biosensors and synthetic red blood cells.
Supporting the iGEM event is a long-term investment for SULSA but Tyers is convinced it will be worth it. “As synthetic biology starts to take off,” Tyers says, “the revolution in molecular biology will pale in comparison.”