Synthetic Biology Moves from Theory toward Practice – But What is It?

By IEEE Life Sciences Staff

The exciting field of synthetic biology is evolving so rapidly that no widely accepted definitions exist. According to Synthetic, “Synthetic biology is a.) the design and construction of new biological parts, devices and systems, and b.) the redesign of existing natural biological systems for useful purposes.”

According to the UK Royal Society, “Synthetic biology is an emerging area of research that can broadly be described as the design and construction of novel artificial biological pathways, organisms or devices, or the redesign of existing natural biological systems.”

There are many more definitions of synthetic biology, but as one can see, the basic premise is the same. Here, we outline several projects that have utilized the synthetic biology concept. To start, Harvard Medical School’s Pamela Silver and her research team have been transforming gut bacteria into microscopic “reporters” that can detect an antibiotic in the guts of mice. While this is not a massively useful application, it lays the ground work for microbial reporters that could spot the chemical signatures of inflammation, disease-causing bacteria, or environmental toxins. See Not Exactly Rocket Science for more on this exciting project.

In a recent study from MIT, engineers have coaxed bacterial cells to produce biofilms than can incorporate nonliving materials, such as gold nanoparticals and quantum dots. These “living materials” combine the advantages of live cells, which respond to their environment, produce complex biological molecules, and span multiple length scales, with the benefits of nonliving materials, which add functions such as conducting electricity or emitting light.

The MIT researchers also demonstrated that the cells can coordinate with each other to control the composition of the biofilm. The team ultimately hopes to emulate how natural systems, like bone, form. According to Timothy Lu, an assistant professor of electrical engineering and biological engineering, “No one tells bone what to do, but it generates a material in response to environmental signals.”

“I think this is really fantastic work that represents a great integration of synthetic biology and material engineering,” says Lingchong You, an associate professor of biomedical engineering at Duke University who was not part of the research team.

As an example of multiple efforts underway in just a single institution, the Projects page of MIT’s Weiss Lab for Synthetic Biology lists 10 projects.

ERASynBio is a program for the development and coordination of Synthetic Biology in the European Research Area. ERASynBio defines synthetic biology as “the deliberate (re)design and construction of novel biological and biologically based parts, devices and systems to perform new functions for useful purposes, that draws on principles elucidated from biology and engineering.” More simply put, it is the “engineering of biology.”

According to Professor Victor de Lorenzo, head of the Laboratory of Environmental Molecular Biology at the Spanish National Center for Biotechnology, and representative of the ERA Strategic Advisory Board, believes that “the transformative potential of this simple principle is extraordinary, perhaps only comparable to the development of the steam engine in the 18th century.” That is quite a testament to the significance of this growing field, both medically and commercially.

The ERASynBio strategic vision states that although the field of synthetic biology has only been widely recognized for the last 10 years, “it has demonstrated real potential to contribute to grand societal challenges including lifelong health and wellbeing, energy and food security, and adaption to environmental change.”