Synthetic Biology (SynBio) is a field of science that deals with the technology of life for the benefit of humans. It has the potential to transform many facets of society – from the way we make food to how we diagnose and cure diseases.
It is a rapidly growing field of science. In fact, global sales of the SynBio market are expected to reach $ 34.5 billion by 2026, with a CAGR of 21.9%.
While this fascinating area of research is worth paying attention to, it can be daunting to rack your brains – especially if you don’t have a scientific background. With that in mind, here is an introduction to synthetic biology and how it works.
What is synthetic biology?
As we mentioned in the introduction, SynBio is an area of scientific research that involves manipulating and redesigning the biological components, systems and interactions that make up life. As a result, SynBio can give the organisms new capabilities that are beneficial for humans.
It’s similar to genetic engineering, but a bit more granular. While genetic engineering transfers ready-made genetic material between organisms, SynBio builds new genetic material from scratch.
SynBio has applications in a wide variety of fields, with research covering everything from space exploration to drug discovery. Here’s a look at five of its real-world uses:
1. Medical technology
SynBio has a wide range of medical uses including drug discovery, antibody production, and vaccine innovation (it was key to fighting COVID-19). It also plays an important role in the development of “living medicines,” that is, the use of living microbes to treat chronic or serious diseases.
2. Sustainable energies
Biofuel, a renewable energy made from living materials, could replace petroleum and diesel in the near future – and synthetic biology technology is helping develop fermentation processes that produce biofuels more efficiently.
Bioremediation uses living organisms to restore polluted sites to their original state. SynBio uses this field to try to make the decontamination process more efficient and to expand the list of contaminants that bioremediation can target.
4. Food and Agriculture
SynBio plays an important role in cellular agriculture, i.e. the production of agricultural products directly from cells instead of from livestock or plants. These modified foods can be of higher nutritional value or allergen-free. For example, plant-based burgers can taste more like meat.
5. Space systems and exploration
Synthetic biology and 3D printing have tremendous potential for sustaining life during space exploration. Using SynBio technology, cells and bacteria could be modified to make a variety of materials – from plastic to medicine to food – and astronauts could print these synthetically made materials in space as needed.
Zooming In: The Science Behind Synthetic Biology
After we addressed the uses of SynBio in a variety of industries, let’s now dive into the science behind it. To understand the mechanics of SynBio it is important to understand the relationship between DNA and Protein production.
Proteins are the driving forces of life in a cell – they are responsible for the execution of all vital functions. They are created through a process called protein synthesis that relies heavily on DNA. Why is DNA so important for protein production? Because it contains all the information a cell needs for protein synthesis.
Once a protein is formed, it embarks on a complex journey through the cell, interacting with a number of other proteins and cell components to perform functions necessary for the cell to survive.
This process of protein production and cellular interaction is an example of a biological system. And it is this biological system that synthetic biologists study and try to manipulate.
The five main research areas
After reviewing the literature, we identified five main areas of SynBio research:
- In silico Synthetic biology
This area of SynBio research means “about computers” and uses computer simulations to design and predict new biological systems. It’s like using a drawing board before starting a project.
- “Unnatural” molecular biology
A research area focused on changing the smallest unit of DNA – nucleotides.
This research area deals with larger sections of DNA such as genes or chromosomes and sometimes with other cell components that interact with DNA. It aims to create new proteins or protein systems and is the most popular area of SynBio research.
- Synthetic Genomics
Focuses on changing and manipulating entire genomes (that’s the complete set of DNA in a cell).
- Protocell Synthetic Biology
This area of research aims to build whole cells. This is a step towards creating organisms that are entirely synthetic
While early research at SynBio struggled to complete real-world projects, innovation in this area has increased rapidly over the past decade.
Synthetic biology products will permeate more and more everyday life – so much so that some scientists believe that by 2030, most people will have eaten, worn, or used something created by synthetic biology.