What is Synthetic biology?

Synthetic biology is a very new branch of science, which has enumerable possibilities. One possible definition for the area of synthetic biology is “The development of biological systems and organisms with the help of standardized building blocks and engineering principles.” Even though synthetic biology is basically dealing with the same materials and methods as genetic engineering, there are many substantial differences between these two areas. Conventional genetic engineering is oriented towards already existing life forms – for example the exchange and transfer of genetic sequences between two different organisms etc.  Synthetic biology, on the other hand, has the goal of designing and building Life forms, biological building blocks, bio-molecules, and enzymes (catalysts) which do not occur in nature.

Synthetic biology can be a useful tool for

  • The diagnosis or treatment of fatal diseases, for example: cancer.

  • The creation of new, made-to-order bio-materials with properties not achievable by other means

  • The creation of new enzymes, which, for example, are even able to transform straw or other agricultural byproducts into fuels.

  • The reduction in production costs for medicines that, especially in developing nations, are very important – a synthetically developed medicine to fight against malaria is coming to market soon.

  • The development of medicine that is tailored for each individual patient.

Sooner or later, synthetic biology will clearly, if not replace, at least expand upon classical genetic engineering. And there are great hopes for synthetic biology, even though it is unclear, which of these expectations will go into fulfillment. At any rate, it is high time that politicians and society start dealing with the questions that synthetic biology poses, eg:

  • Should we be allowed to interfere with life with engineering methods?

  • In what ways should we deem artificial biological systems as “living material”?

  • May one ‘synthesize’ life?

  • How can accidents, for example the incidental release of SynBio-organisms, be avoided? How can bioterrorism be countered?

  • How can the risks be adequately assessed? Who should do that assessment?

Goals of Synthetic biology:

  • Development of “minimal organisms”: so far there are no organisms swimming around in Petri dishes that are artificial from the ground up. One way to achieve this is through the so-called “minimal genome”. This is made out of bacteria, which already have a very short genome. Through a series of trials, the “unneeded” (non-vital) genes are slowly weeded out. DNA that doesn’t hold vital information is removed as well. The result is an organism that only retains the inherited information needed to sustain it in a defined nutrient solution in laboratory conditions. What is left over can be used as a scaffolding or chassis, as with a car; or at least that is the idea. This is called the “top-down” method. Through this, we come closer to understanding what truly defines life. On the other hand, one receives a platform onto which biological circuitry can be built.

  • The creation of artificial cells: unlike the step-by-step reduction of genes, the “bottom-up” method attempts to create a totally artificial cell (a “protocell”) with the most important attributes of life – such as the interaction with an environment and a functioning metabolism. A cell membrane is relatively easy to create with bubbles of fat. Such bubbles have already been successfully used to contain biomolecules to coax an interaction. In another case it was possible to jump-start a metabolism.

  • The Design of Standardized Biological Building Blocks: another starting point for synthetic biology is to build up databases, in which genetic building blocks are precisely described in order to combine them more efficiently at a later date. By characterizing the thousands of control elements that are important for the engineering of microbes, researchers can later introduce these DNA segments and adjust them in order to produce new fuels and chemicals and chemical agents. There are many organizations, all over the world, that are synthesizing DNA segments on a mass scale at fully automated facilities in order to make them available to researchers – for example the Geneart AG in Regensburg (Germany).

  • The production of new proteins:
    another branch of synthetic biology is engaged in the production of new proteins as raw materials and bio-catalysts (enzymes) with computer designed protein models or the assembly of non-proteinogenic (non natural) amino acids. This was our approach in the lab.

  • New Information Storage Molecules:
    Finally, there is also the production of artificial DNA that uses, instead of Desoxyribose, another sugar molecule, eg. Hexose. The result would be HNA. In this way, one can only live in the lab – in a kind of parallel world. Because no inherited genetic material is used, this organism would not be able to interact with nature. This could reduce the risk of accidental release of dangerous laboratory bacteria. This, more than anything else, shows how great the spectrum of possibilities of synthetic biology is.

"Leben 2.0, Biologie aus dem Baukasten", www.zukunftswissen.apa.at, Mario Wasserfaller, 12.02.2010
"Schöpfung im Labor", Der Spiegel 4.1.2010
"Leben vom Reißbrett", Spektrum der Wissenschaft, Nov.2008
"Den Kode des Lebens erweitern", Spektrum der Wissenschaft, Jän.2009