Synthetic Biology

Synthetic Biology – what the hack is that?

Synthetic biology is a new area of biological research that combines science and engineering. Synthetic biology emcompasses a variety of different approaches, methodologies and disciplines, with the aim to design and construction of new biological functions and systems not found in nature. Synthetic biology is based on genetic engineering but goes much further. In genetic engineering the goal was to manipulate an organism’s genes, usually by transferring one gene from a donor to a host organisms. Synthetic biology, on the other hand, aims at creating whole new biological functions, systems and eventually organisms.

Synthetic biology is:

1. Engineering DNA-based biological circuits, including standard biological parts:

Instead of just transfering one gene, a whole system is built in an organisms (e.g. an oscillator, an on-off switch, a more complicated multi-step chemical synthesis of a useful biomolecule, biocomputer).

2. Defining a minimal genome/minimal life (top-down):

Taking a bacteria that already has a very small genome (i.e. number of base pairs) and reduce it even further until the organisms cannot survive any longer. That way we can define and understand the smallest possible genome that still sustains life. This minimal life will also forma  „chassis“ for hosting the biocircuits described above.

3. Constructing synthetic cells or protocells from scratch or bottom-up:

In an attempt to prove Pasteur’s “law of biogenesis” (Omne vivum ex vivo, Latin for, “all life [is] from life”) incomplete, scientists are now trying to produce synthetic cellular life form from simple chemical ingredients.

4. Creating orthogonal biological systems based on a biochemistry not found in nature:

All forms of life on earth use the famous DNA molecule. Now scientists are constructing different molecules with similar functions (e.g. the XNA, Xenonucleicacid) to construct living systems that have never existed before, as a way to avoid interference with naturally evolved DNA while doing biotechnology.

5. The chemical synthesis of DNA

So far DNA could only be created by life itself, but now special DNA synthesis machines can actually “print” DNA the way we want it. Scientist can e.g. download the genetic code of a virus (and eventually bacteria) and construct its DNA with this machine.

By applying the toolbox of engineering disciplines to biology, a whole set of potential applications become possible. Some of the potential benefits of synthetic biology, such as the development of low-cost drugs or the production of chemicals and energy by engineered bacteria are enormous. There are, however, also potential and perceived risks due to deliberate or accidental damage, as well as ethical questions. In order to ensure a vital and successful development of this new scientific field – in addition to describe the potential benefits – it is absolutely necessary to gather information also about the risks and to devise possible biosafety strategies to minimize them.