Is the future here now? What is synthetic biology? by Suf Alkhaldi

Image courtesy of nongpimmy at
Using synthetic biology to simulate photosynthesis  (Image courtesy of nongpimmy at

A promising  and cutting-edge science with the potential of improving our lives within the next ten years is coming to our doorstep:  synthetic biology.  Synthetic biology is creating such a buzz in scientific circles that a lot of universities and scientific institutions have started investing money in this field. This discipline of science brings several fields to work together in harmony: engineering, computational biology, and genomics. When you mix engineers with bioinformaticians and biologists to create controlled programmed biological functions you harvest real possibilities to solve difficult problems.

The ability of synthetic biology to engineer or simulate photosynthetic organisms to use the light as an ultimate energy source and carbon dioxide as the ultimate carbon source is not far-fetched anymore.  During graduate school years ago, I mentioned in a seminar that a synthetic photosynthetic simulated reaction will generate energy to charge car batteries. Many faculty members attending my seminar were  skeptical, thinking I was predicting science fiction more than scientific research.  At that time, I have to admit, I was a bold and inexperienced graduate student.  Being inexperienced, I wanted to show the world the big picture of my research.  I wanted to let them know what allowed me to get up every morning to go through my brutal routine of an endless repetition of experiments in my lab and to still have the motivation to come the next day to finish the work. The field of synthetic biology has advanced so much since my graduate-school days that scientists have achieved some of the predictions we were talking about.  The future is here now!

Synthetic Biology the new frontier
Synthetic Biology: the new frontier (Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at

Synthetic biology uses rational design to assemble many known biological functions of many components in one cell to produce a predictable and reliable outcome.  Dr. Craig Venter, one of  the most visionary and controversial characters in the field of genomic and synthetic biology, has built and assembled a whole DNA chromosome (even inserting the signature of his company logo in the DNA sequence) in yeast (which could not function) and transplanted (moved) the whole synthetic chromosome back to other bacterial cells (Mycoplasma).  Amazingly, the cells grew the next day, thus indicating the success of the synthetic biology field.  This was a landmark and spectacular achievement done in J. Craig Venter Institute in Rockville, MD.

In the UK, the National Bioeconomy Blueprint identified Synthetic Biology as one of a few technologies that the government should invest in to promote a great rate of return.  The UK Synthetic Biology Roadmap Coordination Group published a report in July 2012 exploring the use of the technology in advancing scientific research as well as providing economical value to the society.  A year after the publication, the UK Science Minister announced 101 million dollars in support of the field.  This was followed by the US announcing the era of precision medicine with 3.5 billion funding in 2015 for several cutting-edge technologies that include synthetic biology to reap the benefits of improving patient treatment outcomes.

Synthetic biology has the potential to fight antibiotic resistance bacteria, to synthesize cells to produce anti-malarial drugs, to produce viruses that can remove biofilms, and to create whole-cell biosensors.  Stay tuned, the field is coming with great solutions.

If you are interested in reading more about the field, please read the following collection of scientific papers:  Nature collection of Synthetic biology.

This blog is usually published every week on Saturday before 10:00 pm. US Eastern time.   A bit delayed this week due to a work trip to San Francisco. Thank you for reading my blog. I would love to hear from you.

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