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Synthetic biology

Overview

Synthetic biology started in the early 2000’s due to the great strides made in genomics, understanding evolution, and systems biology in the years prior. Synthetic biology, in contrast to its biological roots, applies engineering principles of standardization and controlled circuits to create biological solutions to problems in industry, agriculture, environment, and healthcare. Finding sustainable biological solutions has also been driven by decreased costs in synthesizing DNA and sequencing DNA, and most recently by the discovery of CRISPR genome editing. Between standardization of processes and the availability of reagents to create, decode, and edit DNA, synthetic biology is a burgeoning field of research that is sure to impact our lives in the future.

What is synthetic biology?

Biologists investigate and categorize living things and the environments that they inhabit. Engineers use defined processes based on science and math principles to solve technical problems. Synthetic biology, or SynBio for short, is a merge of these two disciplines. On the biological side, SynBio uses information obtained from systems biology, genomics, genetic engineering, molecular biology, evolutionary biology, and biochemistry. On the engineering side, SynBio uses principles and ideas from biotechnology, biophysics, computer science, nanotechnology, bioinformatics, machine learning, artificial intelligence, and in silico analysis and testing.

The overarching goal for synthetic biology research is to create biologically based solutions or products. In a similar way that chemists have been able to take rudimentary chemicals from our planet and create plastics, alloys, and other complex materials, synthetic biologists want to engineer biology to create new products for industry, agriculture, and healthcare in a sustainable manner.

What are the key applications for synthetic biology?

SynBio has been used in many applications, and future applications are only limited by human imagination. In industry, SynBio applications include the production and manufacturing of enzymes, sustainable production of biofuels, and creation of bio-based specialty products. Synthetic biologists are applying engineering principles to biological discoveries to create microbial biosensors for pollutants and to develop microbes or plants for bioremediation of contamination or water pollution in the environment.

In healthcare, synthetic biology is used for rational drug design, immunotherapy for cancers, and creation of medical treatments using sustainable practices. New treatments, such as Car-T therapy for lymphoma and other blood cancers, use SynBio techniques to modify a patient’s immune system so it eradicates their own unique cancer. This breakthrough therapy may potentially replace traditional chemotherapy for cancers such as acute lymphoblastic leukemia.

Agricultural biotechnology (Agbiotech) has and will continue to benefit from SynBio research. Applications of SynBio principles facilitate sustainable farming practices, improve animal health, improve disease resistance and yield of crops, and develop new specialty foods that will reduce our dependence on traditional crops.

One of the most important applications for SynBio brings the technology and scientific discovery full circle. As scientists use engineering principles to design biologically based products in agriculture, industry, healthcare, and environmental studies, the lessons extend our knowledge of biological principles. Each new product or solution extends our knowledge of how living things function.

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Industry

  • Enzyme production
  • Biofuels
  • Bio-based specialty products
  • Bulk chemicals
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Healthcare

  • Drug design
  • Immunotherapy
  • Sustainably-produced medicines
  • Vaccines
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Agriculture

  • Sustainable farming
  • Soil additives
  • Bio-based specialty foods
  • Disease-resistant plants
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Environment

  • Biofuels
  • Biosensors for pollution
  • Bioremediation
  • Waste treatment

What key technologies drive SynBio?

SynBio relies heavily on many disciplines, but it also relies on the following key technologies:

On the engineering side, SynBio benefits from:

  • Increased computer storage capacity and processing speeds
  • Computer modeling and artificial intelligence
  • Concepts of modularity, standardization, and digital circuits 

Biology and standardization create SynBio products faster

Once a desired biological product is identified, synthetic biologists look for the genes that encode the product. Naturally occurring, biologically based products are often from plants or animals, making the product hard to isolate on a large scale. Therefore, the genes that code for the natural product are cloned, that is, isolated and placed in a host organism for production. In contrast, novel biological products can be created by rational design, which uses the current understanding of how genes are expressed into proteins, and how the code of the gene dictates the protein shape and its ultimate function.

To increase the speed of making biological products, SynBio researchers design genetic “parts” that can be quickly assembled to form all different types of genetic constructs, just like electrical circuits can be made from a variety switches, conductors, transistors, and power sources. The genetic “parts” are genetic codes that are made into synthetic DNA, which are converted into the actual product using cell-free systems or host organisms. The final enzyme, biofuel, drug, biosensor, etc. can then be purified in large quantities for use in agriculture, industry, healthcare, and environmental applications.

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