Synthetic biology: from cancer to climate crisis | IDT and Molecular Devices insights
Synthetic biology at its core is molecular biology, and really got its start years ago when scientists were seeking ways to create synthetic fuels.
The push to create synthetic fuels was exciting, and everything seemed to be progressing well – at least until fracking came along. With the rise in fracking, fuel producers saw that it was easier and cheaper to simply drill oil out of the ground. Left without a market to serve, those in the synthetic biology field turned to other challenges, and today, synthetic biology has given the world everything from synthetic hamburger to synthetic leather, with more breakthroughs on the horizon.
Recently, Adam Clore, IDT’s technical director of synthetic biology, and Merrit Savener, the biopharma technical account manager at Molecular Devices, were on the podcast Talking Techniques to discuss the state of the synbio field and its ability to provide answers to some of the world’s most pressing problems, from cancer to climate change. Molecular Devices and IDT are both owned by Danaher, a global life sciences company.
What is synthetic biology?
Synthetic biology is about making biology “engineerable,” Savaner told podcast host Tristan Free, who is also the digital editor of BioTechniques.com. More formally, she said, “Synthetic biology is a set of concepts, approaches, and tools that enable the modification of existing biological organisms, or the design and construction of new biological entities for industry, science, and health care purposes.”
This, she added, involves a complicated design, build, and test cycle. A key challenge in the field is that it is difficult to predict what organisms will do. Further, this sort of molecular engineering involves moving from eukaryotic systems, where everything is compartmentalized, to prokaryotic systems, where there is no compartmentalization. This is where IDT and other Danaher partners play a role, Clore noted, by offering researchers tools such as purified, linear double-stranded DNA fragments, which are long enough to code for genes or regions of genes and use common DNA assembly methods.
“A lot of optimization is required,” Clore said of the R&D work that goes into developing the products and solutions that Danaher partners provide to researchers.
The growth of automation
Tech advancements are making SynBio easier, Savaner commented, and helping to overcome problems. These include instruments that allow researchers to pick huge numbers of colonies and automated systems with built-in tracking.
“It is really nice to go from these modular systems that IDT can provide … and find what you are looking for faster,” she said.
This work, noted Clore, happens in highly complex environments. For researchers, there are funding requirements to adhere to as well as government regulations, such as the Department of Commerce, and industry regulations. One of those is the International Gene Synthesis Consortium, which encompasses about 80 percent of gene manufacturers operating globally today. The consortium has developed harmonized screening protocols that are used by all gene manufacturers to ensure that they comply with regulations safely and limit the amount of biohazardous experiments taking place while still allowing high-quality research and products to be developed.
What will it take to improve synthetic biology?
While there have been many significant advancements, Clore said, still more can be done to further the field.
The catch with synthetic biology, he said, is how complex systems are. This includes not only the biology itself but the need for machines and systems that can get the work done.
“One of the hardest things that we struggle with is creating software that integrates a workflow,” he commented. “The challenge is that it has to be flexible and agile enough to adjust to your needs but robust enough to run thousands of experiments … and deal with failures, because failures are inevitable.”
Simply having a workflow is not enough, he explained – you need rework cycles built into it so you can recover from failures and keep working. Additional automation, he said, would help researchers move away from workflows that, even today, are still done on spreadsheets and have manual tracking.
What is the next big thing in the world of synthetic biology?
The most exciting corner of the field, Savener noted, is food.
“I just think that’s a really, really exciting space,” she said.
Food applications in synthetic biology, she said, are moving at an incredible pace. There are two components to this – plant-based meats and lab-grown meats. But there are also many questions surrounding the technology, she said. When will it scale to the point where it can complete with traditional agriculture? And – the big one – how comfortable are people with eating something like a steak grown in a lab, not cut from a cow?
One of the challenges to that,” said Free, is scaling the technology so it is established before the animal equivalent of fracking comes along and makes it obsolete, as was the case with synthetic fuels.
“I guess the key,” Free said, “is making sure it tastes real good.”
Food production “makes me most hopeful in a world that is changing like ours,” Clore noted. “The benefit,” he said, “will create genetically modified organisms that are more efficient and use less land, which in turn will allow humans to shrink their footprint and provide healthy food to a growing world.”
But more than that, he noted, what is exciting about SynBio is in the field of immunotherapy, and the ability to create precision medicine and personalized medicine extremely rapidly while harnessing the power of the body’s own immune system to fight disease.
“I think that is what gives me the most hope and is most exciting for me in the world of synthetic biology,” he said.
Hear the whole podcast here.