What is synthetic biology?

What is synthetic biology?

Medicines produced by redesigned bacteria, heavily genetically altered algae that produce clean energy, extinct species brought back to life  and perhaps even the creation of artificial life. Expectations of synthetic biology are running high.

A new phase in the development of biotechnology

Synthetic biology represents the latest phase in the development of biotechnology, in which scientists are gaining unprecedented control in programming new biological functions by rewriting the genetic code. This allows them to ‘design’ and ‘create’ micro-organisms that may perform a variety of useful tasks. At the same time these organisms are becoming increasingly more estranged from those we may find in nature. Synthetic biologists look at biology from an engineering perspective. In the words of synthetic biology pioneer Drew Endy, up to now in biology it was always 'nature at work'. However, "if you consider nature as a machinery, then you can see that she is not perfect and she can be revised and improved". Given synthetic biology’s potential to contribute to addressing grand challenges societies are facing, such as regarding health, sustainability, scarcity of resources and energy security, it is no surprise that this new discipline has been embraced by scientists all over the globe. On the other hand, like any other science and technology synthetic biology is not without risks. In addition, synthetic biology may raise moral questions and concerns, since it allows mankind to put ‘life’ and ‘nature’ on the drawing board like never before.

Haven’t we been doing this already?

Does synthetic biology really provide different options from those genetic engineering technologies that we already knew? Although there are overlaps between approaches of "traditional" biotechnology and synthetic biology, new options are emerging. In biotechnology, up to now, scientists mostly enhanced existing biological functions or transfered them between organisms, based on the modification or transfer of one or very few genes. Synthetic biology approaches allow the combination of multiple genes, newly constructed “biological parts” or the use of non-natural molecules to construct new biological pathways, functions and (in the future) entire organisms, that have no blueprint in nature. The construction of such complex functions is facilitated by the chemical synthesis of whatever DNA sequence as well as by rational design processes that are increasingly guided by computer-based modelling.

by Virgil Rerimassie (Rathenau Institute) and Harald König (KIT)


Here are some introductory videos on synthetic biology: