Synthetic Biology

Airplanes modelled from birds, sonars inspired from whale echolocation, architecture mimicking earthen termite mounds. Scientists and Engineers have been continuously inspired by the works of Mother Nature. Beyond this, synthetic biology, aims to create new biological parts, devices or systems as well as redesign existing systems in nature. It relies on the application of engineering principles to biology by bridging multiple fields including biotechnology, molecular and computer engineering. 

Current addressed themes include:

  • Creating a pool of standardised biological parts, accessible and available for the tweaking and synthesis of novel biological systems. 
  • Designing and constructing a “simpler” genome for bacteria, to establish a more effective workhorse for industrial biotechnology. Indeed, bacteria are the golden standard for the production of recombinant pharmaceutical, consumables and chemical products.
  • Advanced protein design, modifying or repurposing the natural protein functions to widen their applications. Proteins play essential parts in biological systems by speeding up biochemical and metabolic reactions as well as conferring fuel sources to the body. 

The above are facilitated by the emergence of gene editing tools particularly the recent attributed Chemistry Nobel Prize, CRISPR-Cas 9 (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats). It was naturally discovered in bacteria, to protect against foreign invading viruses. Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna repurposed this highly specific molecular scissor tool to add, remove or change an organism’s DNA sequence.

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Synthetic biotechnology addresses diverse challenges faced by humans: 

  • Environmental issues: genetic engineering of bacteria to clean up oil spills otherwise detrimental to marine wildlife. Synthetised microbial biosensors can also be designed to respond to toxins (mercury, ammonium or phosphorus) by bioluminescent signals. 
  • Pharmaceutical advances: engineering natural host cells (bacterial, plant and mammals) for medical or therapeutic applications. For example, the optimization of E. coli bacteria for recombinant human growth factor hormone production, allowed the wider scale tackling of children growth disorders. Synthetic biology can also be used for diagnostic purposes. Scientists from ETH Zürich developed a logic circuit to discriminate between healthy and cancerous cells based on altered microRNA levels (non-coding nucleic acids that regulate the genome).
  • Industrial limitations: bypassing the limited abundance of highly sought after natural products for effective scaling up and distribution. It is expensive, time-consuming and unsustainable to obtain vanillin from vanilla pods or rose oil from roses. Instead, bacteria and yeast can be engineered to produce these desired products to meet the demands of the food and cosmetic industry.