Skip main navigation

Synthetic biology explained

From selective breeding to genetic modification, our understanding of biology is merging with engineering principles of to bring us synthetic biology
After 10,000 years, genetic manipulation by selective breeding, humans finally gained direct access to the genetic code deoxyribonucleic acid - DNA. Since then we’ve cut and pasted it, photocopied fragments of it en masse, speed read it with sequences, printed out the code letter by letter in the lab, modelled it on computers the measured with microscopes. For forty years now, we’ve called this work genetic engineering. The trouble is that while there’s been an extraordinary amount of genetic discovery and manipulation, there’s been precious little engineering. Engineers are frustrated by genetics and molecular biology. The experiments are too slow, the complexity too messy and growing more so all the time, and there’s a frustrating lack of standardised components.
They’d like to do to genetic engineering what engineers have done since the Stone
Age: collect, refine and repackage nature so that it’s easier to make new and reliable things. Engineers want to treat DNA more like a programming language; instead of ones and zeros - As, Ts, Gs and Cs. They want to use DNA to write simple Lego-like functional components inspired by, but not found in, nature and then run them in a cell instead of a computer. The only difference is this software builds its own hardware. They call this reengineered genetic engineering.
Synthetic biology: Nowadays, rather than cut and paste the DNA sequence out of one organism and into another you can, if you know what you doing, just type your DNA sequence into a computer or copy it from a database, or even select from a growing component catalogue. And then you just order it over the Internet. Yes, really! The DNA sequence may be copied from nature but the DNA itself is made by machine- its synthetic. The raw material synthesising DNA is sugar. Twenty-five dollars of which will buy you enough to make a copy of every human genome on the planet. The chemical letters are fed into the DNA equivalent of an industrial inkjet printer.
In goes your sequence information and out comes DNA at a cost less than 40 cents per base pair and getting cheaper all the time. It’s then freeze-dried and shipped to your door. Already engineers have assembled an open source catalogue of over 5,000 standardised components called bio bricks. At an annual worldwide do-it-yourself competition university students build new and more complex bio bricks, string them together and then run them inside a much studied intestinal bacteria - E-coli. Sure they’re toy projects with shoestring budget but the results are impressive. E-chromi - an E coli with sensitivity tuner and colour generators is programmed to turn one in five colours when it detects a certain concentration of an environmental toxin. E.
coliroid is a bacterial system which switches on/off in response to red light and acts like a bacterial Polaroid camera. Group with more time and a lot more money are rewriting, or as in computer programming, re-factoring whole systems. J Kiesling, chemical and biological engineer and his team at UC Berkeley have built and continually refined a new metabolic pathway in yeast by assembling ten genes from three organisms in an attempt to produce synthetically the anti-malarial drug Artemisinin and to do it cheaply enough to treat up to 200 million malaria sufferers each year.
Biotechnology pioneer, Craig Venter has gone even further - his team has entirely replaced the DNA of one bacterium with a synthetic copy of DNA from another naturally occurring species and added a few extras, like their email address. This wasn’t creating life - he was testing just how reprogrammable a bacterial cell can be - an important step if we want biological factories which can be tasked to make many things like vaccines, medicine, food and even fuel. In the last 10,000 years genetics is taking this from gathering seeds manipulating DNA. And engineering has taken us from rocks and caves to handheld computers and skyscrapers.
We can only guess what the two working together as synthetic biology might help us achieve in the future but the possibilities are breath-taking. Engineering algae that can eat climate-changing carbon dioxide and produce less polluting bio-fuels. We might do away with both liver and kidney transplants and instead use a vat-grown, all-purpose biological sieve organ called a Kliver. We could change the nature of construction, architecture, urban planning forestry and even gardening with the seed that can grow into a house, or even return life to a whole planet by terra-forming the long dead Mars. Until then synthetic biology advances project by project.
As Drew Endy, civil engineer turned synthetic biologists says, “testing of understanding by building is the shortest path to demonstrating what you know and what you don’t.” In so doing synthetic biology is already paying dividends by simultaneously expanding and testing our knowledge of cellular function.

From selective breeding to genetic modification, our understanding of biology is now merging with the principles of engineering to bring us synthetic biology.

The international nature of scientific research is shown by the fact that this film was produced in Australia, but its information is relevant to scientists across the globe.

The prices quoted in the film are for Australian dollars; there are about 2 Australian dollars to each UK pound sterling at the current exchange rate (June 2016). At the time that this film was made the cost to synthesise each base was stated to be about 20 pence sterling (“40 cents” in Australian money), but it is continuing to decrease.

The video mentions the International Genetically Engineered Machines (iGEM) Foundation, an independent, non-profit organization dedicated to the advancement of synthetic biology, and the development of an open community and collaboration. iGEM runs three main programs:

  • the iGEM Competition – an international competition for students interested in the field of synthetic biology;

  • the Labs Program – a program for academic labs to use the same resources as the competition teams;

  • the Registry of Standard Biological Parts – a growing collection of genetic parts use for building biological devices and systems.

Further background information about this topic is available via the links below.

© UEA and Biochemical Society, 2018. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

This article is from the free online

Biochemistry: the Molecules of Life

Created by
FutureLearn - Learning For Life

Our purpose is to transform access to education.

We offer a diverse selection of courses from leading universities and cultural institutions from around the world. These are delivered one step at a time, and are accessible on mobile, tablet and desktop, so you can fit learning around your life.

We believe learning should be an enjoyable, social experience, so our courses offer the opportunity to discuss what you’re learning with others as you go, helping you make fresh discoveries and form new ideas.
You can unlock new opportunities with unlimited access to hundreds of online short courses for a year by subscribing to our Unlimited package. Build your knowledge with top universities and organisations.

Learn more about how FutureLearn is transforming access to education