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.

The Parliamentary Office on Science and Technology - Postnote on Synthetic Biology

The Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology produced a Postnote on Synthetic Biology. This helps put into context recent developments, the benefits and possible risks associated with synthetic biology together with the policy options for the development and governance of the research.

Synthetic Biology could raise some concerns regarding ethics, bio security, bio safety, ownership of intellectual property and question the motivation of stakeholders. Concern is also been raised regarding the lack of proper regulation both within the Scientific Community and by governments Worldwide.

Synthetic Biology Dialogue Report

To address public opinion the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) initiated a project to develop a dialogue with the public regarding their concerns and aspirations for this emerging field. (These institutions invest over a billion pounds of public money annually in the engineering, physical and biosciences with a clear strategic focus on improving the quality of life in the UK)

The findings of the Synthetic Biology Dialogue Report were published at a launch event in London on 14 June 2010.

The report presents the findings of a series of public workshops and stakeholder interviews on the science and issues surrounding synthetic biology. The Project took place during 2009-2010 and was carried out by the TNS-BMRB, BBSRC, EPSRC with the support of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills Sciencewise programme.

The public can see the enormous potential of science but are concerned about the speed of progress, regulation and the risks of synthetic biology to health and the environment. In the future Research Councils will have to consider the technical and ethical issues connected to research and reflect on the motivation and leadership within the scientific community. Although International co-ordination of regulation was raised, in the context of technical advances in a global economy the challenges faced will make this difficult to implement. More information is available here.

A Synthetic Biology Overview Reportwas published in February 2011 which gives a summary of the key findings.

Networks in Synthetic Biology

RoSBNet is one of seven Synthetic Biology Networks funded by four Research Councils, the EPSRC, the BBSRC, the AHRC and the ESRC. The aim of these networks is to establish communication and networking between researchers to share ideas, and encourage creative approaches to meet future challenges. This also allows the opportunity to build international multidisciplinary partnerships to attract research funding opportunities. The seven networks are:

The Synthetic Biology Special Interest Group

A Synthetic Biology Special Interest Group (SynBio-SIG) has been established as a link between the UK's research base and the relevant industrial communities. Its aim is to ensure that the UK's world-leading synthetic biology research can be translated and developed into commercial applications.

A Strategic Roadmap for Synthetic Biology in the UK

A UK roadmap for Synthetic Biology, produced by an independent panel of experts for the government's Department for Business Innovation and Skills, was published in July 2012 in order to develop 'a roadmap that defines the likely timeframe and actions required to establish a world leading Synthetic Biology industry within the UK.'

Core themes

Five core themes emerged from this work. They were:

  • Foundational science and engineering: the need for sufficient capabilities for the UK to maintain a leading edge
  • Continuing responsible research and innovation: including the need for awareness, training and adherence to regulatory frameworks
  • Developing technology for commercial use
  • Applications and markets: identifying growth markets and developing applications
  • International cooperation

Key recommendations

To achieve these themes, five key recommendations were outlined:

  • Invest in a network of multidisciplinary centres to establish an outstanding UK synthetic biology resource.
  • Build a skilled, energised and well-funded UK-wide synthetic biology community [for example, via the Synthetic Biology Special Interest Group].
  • Invest to accelerate technology responsibly to market.
  • Assume a leading international role.
  • Establish a leadership council

Synthetic Biology Leadership Council

As part of the recommendations of the Synthetic Biology roadmap for the UK, the UK Government established a Synthetic Biology Leadership Council (SBLC) as a steering structure governance body that can assess progress, update recommendations and shape priorities for future implementation of the synthetic biology roadmap for the UK.

The SBLC will provide a visible point for strategic coordination between the funding agencies, the research community, industry, government sponsors and other stakeholders, including societal and ethical representatives.

Click here for more details.