Can synthetic biology be the key to solving the world’s most pressing issues in the fields of medicine, food security, and manufacturing? By designing and fabricating new biological parts, devices, and systems and redesigning existing organisms and natural biological systems, experts have high hopes that this interdisciplinary approach can provide new and effective solutions to some of the global challenges we are facing today.
Synthetic Biology: An Overview
At its core, synthetic biology can be defined as the application of engineering principles to biology with the end goal of solving various challenges. While it may have originally spawned from the discovery of the double stranded helix structure of the DNA, it wouldn’t be what it is today if not for the advancements in other disciplines such as engineering (genetic, molecular, chemical, biological, electrical, computer, and control engineering), information technology, and computer science.
Synthetic biology represents a novel approach to studying living units and systems. Instead of perturbing an existing system to analyze how it responds and identify which components make it work, synthetic biology applies engineering principles (abstraction, modularization, standardization, decoupling, and modeling) to manage biological complexity and design simplified biological components performing specific predetermined functions.
There are two different approaches to synthetic biology: the top-down approach, which imparts new functions to living cells using genetic engineering techniques, and the bottom-up approach, which uses in vitro techniques to create new biological systems (e.g., artificial cells).
Recent Advancements in Synthetic Biology
Production of designer molecules
Through synthetic biology approaches, small molecules can now be produced on demand. Admittedly, the process can be slow and results are not always guaranteed, but it confirms the possibility of manufacturing key compounds when needed.
Some notable examples include the large scale production of vaccine antigens and biologically active recombinant proteins in plants (e.g. tobacco) comparable to those produced in conventional expression systems (E. Margolin et al., 2018), the production of small medicinals, biologics, and natural products using microbial hosts (Zhang et al., 2018), and the genetic manipulation of the plastid genetic system for plant biotechnology (Boehm and Bock, 2019).
Advancements in Healthcare
- Commercial application of chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T cells which recognize and attack patients’ cancer cells (leukemia and lymphoma) (June et al., 2018)
- Development of viable gene editing technologies as a treatment option for patients with cancer, congenital blindness, hemophilia, immunodeficiencies, and neuromuscular disease (Dunbar et al., 2018)
- Engineering the gut microbiome with the use of simple devices such as bistable switches and integrase memory assay may lead to the development of synthetic probiotics in the near future (Dou and Bennett, 2018).
- The production of engineered theranostic mammalian cells with adaptable ligand-binding domains for disease diagnosis and treatment (Teixeira and Fussenegger, 2019).
Production of Advanced Materials
Advances in synthetic biology also led to the discovery and creation of innovative synthetic biological materials for diverse applications (Le Feuvre and Scrutton, 2018). Novel and multifunctional synthetic biological materials can be tailored to achieve the desired properties by integrating biochemical and inorganic components and using synthetic biology approaches.
In 2019, scientists at ETH Zurich, a public research university in Switzerland, reported the creation of Caulobacter ethensis-2.0, the first bacterial genome made by a computer. In addition, an article published in The New York Times in May 2019 reported the production of a new synthetic variant of E. coli.
Despite its potentials in addressing burgeoning global concerns regarding healthcare, food security, manufacturing, and renewable energy, synthetic biology also raises various ethical concerns. Questions regarding man’s right to tamper with nature and the creation of new life comes at the forefront while issues concerning biosafety, biosecurity, regulation, patent management, and benefit distribution are also being raised.