It’s almost time to go back to school, so here’s a topic I’ve been needing to write a paper on for a while…
Synthetic Biology is an extension of genetic science and it has the potential to reduce research and development time as well as increase the speed to market of a drug. For those not in anything pharmaceutical related, this can take around 10 years with the clinical trials and as mentioned by acetylide previously, 99% of these compounds don’t pass the final stage. Therefore, it has been increasingly desirable to reduce this time period.
Synthetic biology uses microbes to create biofuels, cells as memory devices, and drugs. It’s typically broken down into two categories:
1. Entire Genome Engineering (produce & manipulate whole-genome sized DNA and function in new cells)
2. Small Devices & Systems Engineering
The 1st step has been approached specifically by Craig Venter and his team, (in)famous for their assistance in the Human Genome Project. His team claims to have made the first synthetic bacterium (Synthia), but really they created an artificial bacterium. This new bacteria had no traces of the original genome in its final form.
The majority of researchers focus on the 2nd step, however. This involves treating biology similar to mechanical or computer engineering. The biological pieces are defined as “parts” and are organized into “devices” to get the final “system.” As such, synthetic biology uses four main principles:
Abstraction (think of a DNA sequence as a part)
Modularity (parts, devices, & systems can be connected and combined in any way)
Standardization (standardize aspects of design to improve function)
Design & Modeling (models needs to built and tested to improve design)
There has been advancements in synthetic biology already. The BioBricks foundation collects standardized pieces of DNA which can be used interchangeably to create and modify living cells. These pieces are designed to work in all cell types. Academic groups often compete against each other in synthetic biology through iGEM teams and have a registry of primers and DNA fragments.
Synthetic Biology was used to create Artemisinin, a drug that is crucial to treatment of malaria. This drug takes 14 months to produce via plants and has large spikes in production and variable pricing. An engineered E. coli or yeast can produce the drug in 14 days.
There is plenty of controversy and benefits surrounding Synthetic Biology. The government has currently taken a stance of little regulation with careful watching. With too many restrictions, it’s likely that true benefits may not emerge; however, as the technology increases, the chance of it falling into dubious hands increases. And the question arises: who really owns biotechnology? Should it be open-sourced? Or does this increase the risks?
Resources & Sources
KQED. “Decoding Synthetic Biology – KQED Quest” (22 Jul 2009). [Youtube video]. Available.
“What is Synthetic Biology?” Available
M. Specter. “A Life of its Own” (28 Sep 2009). Available
W. Saletan. “Faking Organisms” (1 Feb 2011). Available
G. A. Petsko. “Hand-made biology” (30 Jun 2010). Available
N. Gibbs. “The Risks and Rewards of Synthetic Biology” (28 Jun 2010). Available
B. Erickson, R. Singh, P. Winters. “Synthetic Biology: Regulating Industry Uses of New Biotechnologies” (2 Sep 2011). Available