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What exactly is synthetic biology?

Alistair Elfick of The University of Edinburgh offers his personal view of this emerging field

What is synthetic biology? Good question! I don’t know. Or rather, it is not exactly any one thing... there are a number of definitions. But the following is, roughly, what underpins the work of this network.

People have been manipulating life for a very long time: through selective breeding, we have intentionally created new animals and plants. More recently, we have been unwitting assistants in the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria such as MRSA. It is the very plasticity of life that has enabled it to survive mass extinction and evolve to flourish into the wonderful diversity seen all around us.

Throughout the 1970s, researchers strived to define an extraordinary molecular “scissors and glue” for DNA. Werner Arber, Daniel Nathans, and Hamilton O. Smith received the Nobel Prize in 1978 for working out the mechanism of these scissors, technically known as restriction enzymes. This incredible new toolkit opened the door to the creation of specific genetic modifications in organisms. Segments of DNA, or genes, could be taken from one organism and put into another. This new technology was christened “genetic engineering” and a new industry was born.

Call that engineering?

To paraphrase the comedian Simon Munnery: “The engineering equivalent of genetic engineering is to get a bunch of concrete and steel, throw it into a river, and if you can walk across, call it a bridge.”

In short, calling genetic engineering “engineering” would have George Stephenson and Joseph Whitworth blowing their pistons and stripping their threads respectively!

To date, genetic engineering can be considered more of an artisan craft than an engineering discipline. Modifications are one-off specials: they often don’t work and little is learnt from failure.

Our concept of synthetic biology is to bring the power of simple engineering principles to bear on the process of modifying organisms. In this way, an organism that performs a useful function can be made to do so more efficiently; or an organism can be made to fulfill an entirely new function. We want to design functionality into an organism in a much more informed way, just like the engineers who designed the Airbus A380, who knew it would fly before even a single component had been made.

To achieve this will require a huge amount of work. Running with the aircraft analogy, we need to move from the pre-Wright Brothers stage of genetic engineering, to post-Boeing 707 synthetic biology. At the moment, we are just about at the stage of Louis Blériot’s successful flight across the English Channel.

Off-the-shelf parts

The core notion behind this interpretation of synthetic biology is the modular biological part, aka the BioBrick. These are pieces of DNA that have a particular start and finish sequence, which allows them to be easily joined together. The clever bit is that when two BioBricks are joined together, you end up with a new, bigger BioBrick.

These standard biological parts can be assembled into a device that performs a specified function. The device then resides inside a “chassis”. The purpose of the chassis is to support the device by supplying whatever input, such as energy, that is necessary.

Using this approach BioBricks can be easily re-used as the component parts of many different devices.

The point is...

It is envisaged that synthetic biology may be able to contribute to resolving many of the challenges facing us in the 21st Century. The potential applications are immense. We can make devices to produce fuel or animal food from our waste; we can make devices to soak up carbon from the atmosphere and lock it away; we can make devices to synthesise plastics without the need to use oil; we can make devices to sense pollutants; we can make devices to create new drugs. Indeed, synthetic biology holds huge potential to impact positively on our daily lives.


Would you like to contribute your own interpretation of what synthetic biology means — and what it could mean to society?