Introducing Synthetic Biology: Fueling The Next Technological Wave

There are two definitions for synthetic biology. The first, as defined by Bio.Org calls it “the design and fabrication of biological components and systems that do not already exist in the natural world.” Synthetic Biology.Org, on the other hand, refers to it as “the re-design and fabrication of existing biological systems for useful purposes.”

The first definition has synthetic biology creating new components or processes. This is closer to a biological engineering idea where artificial biological systems are built out of existing systems. It may be thought of as an engineering solution, or process, using microbiology and biochemistry to create these new biological items or processes.

The second definition, however, is the modification of biological systems which already exist in the real world, for useful purposes. This could mean the creation of a solution for a problem by designing something new out of existing processes or organisms. The tools are created using engineering disciplines and biotechnological techniques. The most significant synthetic biology pursuits are in creating new breeds of food crops, gene synthesis, genetically engineered machines, recombinant technology, cancer research, molecular biology and others.

Driving the Future of Creation

“What synthetic biology enables us to do is analyze biological systems faster and more cheaply than ever before. In turn, engineering living systems can now benefit society in new and powerful ways”

Although some of the earliest prototypical synthetic biology applications were in HIV and cancer research, today’s growth in synthetic biology has more to do with agriculture, energy and advancements medicine. Synthetic biology research work encompasses fuels, drugs, as well as biological therapies. It can very well be the “next big technological wave” that will drive innovation and economics. Such influence was last seen with the arrival of the information age.

The potential presented by synthetic biology is limitless. “We have a newfound ability to read, write and edit DNA, the code of life,” said Michael Jewett, among the leading synthetic biologists at Northwestern University. “What synthetic biology enables us to do is analyze biological systems faster and more cheaply than ever before. In turn, engineering living systems can now benefit society in new and powerful ways. The key idea is to use our newfound abilities to make something useful, such as a new sustainable chemical or fuel or to fight disease or improve agriculture.”

The current projected market value of synthetic biology is upwards of $10.8 billion, Science said.

One of synthetic biology’s hallmark projects was the development of the anti-malarial drug Artemisinin. This natural malaria treatment was first discovered and used thousands of years ago by Chinese herbalists and comes from the sweet wormwood plant (Artemesia Annua). Plant extract is painfully gathered from this slow-growing species. What makes this plant special is its very rare molecular structure. It has two oxygen atoms that is linked together by an “endoperoxide bridge”, Anti Aging explains.

According to the World Health Organization, to make the treatment readily available and more affordable, synthetic biology stepped in and “teased apart the plant’s plant’s DNA sequences and protein pathways that produce artemisinin and combined them with yeast and bacteria”. Synthetic artemisinin was produced and they were able to generate 10 million times more treatment during the latter period of the 1990s. Nowadays, synthetic Artemisinin is being considered as a viable cure or treatment for cancer.

Other Applications

1. Disease-Fighting Bacteria

Scientists are using synthetic biology to create unique forms of bacteria that can fight and destroy tumors. At the same time, the US Department of Defense is engineering proteins that will serve as targeted vaccines.

2. Biofuels and Renewable Energy Sources

Researchers are building microbes which can be more effective in breaking down feedstocks to produce biofuels. Switchgrass, for example, can be grown and processed as an efficient, cheap, and sustainable energy source in place of fossil fuel. Moreover, a group of geneticists and biochemists are developing oil-producing microbes as another possible source of renewable energy.

Established multinationals which are doing their own synthetic biology research include ExxonMobil, BP and DuPont. Synthetic Genomics, Interxon, and Zymergen are some of the names of startups also working on synthetic biology. Federal agencies like the National Science Foundation, Department of Health and Human Services, Department of Defense, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

There is a lot at stake in synthetic biology, and the bold novelty surrounding it is steeped in heavy research and cross-disciplinary thinking. It is expected that other synthetic biology projects will be undertaken in the United States and the rest of the world in the coming years. This will create a deep impact in people’s lives and continue to challenge the way they view creation and life itself.

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