What is Synthetic Biology?

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Synthetic Biology – What’s it all about?

Synthetic Biology is a new research area which brings together Scientists and Engineers from a wide variety of backgrounds. Its aim is to develop new technologies that have the potential to contribute to resolving the many challenges facing the 21st Century society.

The many possible applications cover several areas, and are perhaps best known for advances already made in the medical field by producing at low cost a precursor to the chemical compound artemisinin which is used in anti-malarian drugs. The benefits are far reaching and will eventually include energy and the environment: for example, in the future this could include making devices to produce fuel from waste; soaking up carbon from the atmosphere and locking it away to help towards reducing global warming; the synthesis of plastics not using oil as world reserves dwindle; developing devises to sense pollutants and aid dispersal to prevent environmental disasters, etc.

The driving force is to improve and enhance the quality of daily life for millions in a positive way, but through a planned and responsible approach.

How does Synthetic Biology work?

Essentially Synthetic Biology involves the design and construction of new biological functions and systems not found in nature. It first began with the study of natural chemicals and the design of new chemical compounds in the field of synthetic chemistry which has been with us for the past 100 years.

This was revolutionised in the 1970’s with the breakthrough research carried out by scientists on the sequencing of DNA which lead to a greater understanding of naturally occurring organisms and the construction of parts now commonly referred to as “gene synthesis”.

This led to Werner, Arber, Nathans, Hamilton and Smith receiving the Nobel Prize in 1978 for their work on “restrictive enzymes” which led to a toolkit where it was possible to create specific genetic modification in organisms which we know today as “Genetic Engineering” where segments of DNA could be taken from one organism and put into another. This resulted in the development of the Biotech Industry.

The core notion is to produce “BioBricks” or Standard biological parts so that organisms can be easily reproduced and manipulated to perform special functions more efficiently or perhaps manipulated to fulfil entirely new functions.

At this stage modelling allows synthetic biologists to better predict system behaviour, this is essential because precise and quantitative measurements of biological systems are important for improving the development and understanding of biology.