An introduction to the broad field of synthetic biology and its applications
Engineering of biology, or synthetic biology, is a newly emerging field combining the principles of engineering and the complexity of biological systems. The aim of a biological engineer is to create or add a novel biological function to a biological system, leading to the design of biological systems in a systematic way.
The definition above is just one of many definitions attributed to the field. This is mainly due to its interdisciplinary property which brings together biologists, physicists, chemists and mathematicians who work alongside each other to produce a viable biological system. Another reason for the abundance of definitions is the thousands of successful applications it has in different areas of science.
Synthetic biology revolves around the central dogma of biology: the process by which DNA becomes protein. In this case, the DNA is thought of as a coding puzzle where Adenosine (A), Cytosine (C), Guanine (G) and Tyrosine (T) carry the instructions and scientists try to create different combinations in a meaningful way, in order to produce a new biological function.
Genetic Engineering is an old concept that dates back a millennium. Not that they knew they were using genetic engineering concepts back then, when selectively breeding different biological entities with desirable features. Humans have long since bred plants to select features like sweet tastes or larger fruit (I am sure our ancestors’ fruits didn’t taste the same as ours do now).
Seventy years ago, biotechnologists started to understand DNA and the different ways in which it could be manipulated. Scientists went further by adding useful features of a certain organism to another organism. This led to a boom in biotech companies making new plant and animal breeds.
Scientists have recently been able to create new DNA sequences from scratch; using computer and laboratory techniques, they engineered organisms with new functions. In 2003, Jay Keasling and his team at UC Berkeley (US) were able to create a synthetic malaria drug from bacteria. Unsurprisingly, this story became the inspiration for hundreds of new scientists who joined the field later.
Currently, the Synthetic Yeast Genome Project is bringing together the combined efforts of many laboratories from different countries including the UK, to create the first synthetic eukaryotic genome.
If you have ever wondered what the replacement for fossil fuels would be, the answer is synthetic biology. It’s also great that London is playing a major role in this revolution. From April 6th to April 8th this year, Synbiobeta is bringing academics, students, industry professionals and investors to a conference based at Imperial College London to discuss recent advances in synthetic biology.