Synthetic biology is the application of design to biology. But how does it work exactly and how can we use it? And do we want to use it? On this page, you can find the most frequently asked queations and the answers about Synthetic Biology.
Synthetic biology is a relatively new scientific discipline. Using natural building blocks such as bacteria and mould as well as parts of proteins and of DNA strands, synthetic biologists are able to design things like new compositions of intestinal flora, new plants, new medicines, or other new biological systems.
These new creations are used by researchers to:
- feed people better;
- improve health; and
- achieve a more sustainable environment.
Synthetic biology is a top-notch research area for engineers and biologists. In synthetic biology, new substances are created, such as medicines or completely new biological systems that have no reason to occur in nature, by doing things like re-designing cells or parts of cells.
Synthetic biology is the application of design to biology. It is an approach inspired by industrial design. We know this approach from the development of new cars, for example. In this field, designers combine modules such as engine, chassis, rims and the like, i.e. components whose properties and purpose they know exactly, in order to create a new and better design.
Thanks to the use of computers and contemporary biological knowledge, new designs can be made in biology too, in areas ranging from medicines, cells and plants to intestinal flora compounds and other biological systems. For their designs, the biologists use components that nature offers them and whose properties they know.
Designing new intestinal flora is about combining various types of micro-organisms which can live in the intestines and which all have their own roles. For example, in designing new drugs, designers make new combinations of protein components whose function and activity they know exactly. And for the efficient and reliable production of new flavourings or other valuable biochemical substances, they design microorganisms with genetic elements that serve the particular purpose they want.
Systems biology is used to accelerate research and to tackle social issues. Systems biologists utilise knowledge derived from many other fields, such as microbiology, physics, chemistry and medicine.
With synthetic biology, you can carry out 'biological design on the computer'. Theoretically, you can redesign anything we know from biology. New plants, flavourings, soil flora, better photosynthesis – you name it. The computer contains databases listing all kinds of organic components whose properties, strengths and weaknesses we know precisely. The synthetic biologists combine those components to create a new design.
Designing new intestinal flora
An example: The computer contains a database with hundreds of types of microorganisms which can be present in your intestines. It includes information about all the different species, such as what nutrients they need, how quickly they multiply, which others types of microorganisms are boosted or harmed by each species, and so on.
Say there are patients who have a problem with their intestines caused by an accumulation of a particular protein, because their bodies produce a lot of it. You could design a new intestinal flora which is enriched with microorganisms capable of breaking down that protein. If those intestinal flora are administered to patients in hospital, hopefully they will have fewer intestinal problems afterwards.
Can we implement the design?
Of course, a design alone is not enough. You also need the techniques to put the design into practice. The designers in synthetic biology take this into account from the start. After all, you want your design to actually be implemented. For example, in the case of the new intestinal flora, there needs to be a technique available to effectively introduce the new intestinal flora into the patient's intestine.
Does the design work as intended?
And even that isn't enough. For example, when designing a new car you need to test whether the combination of components really does deliver the intended driving characteristics on all kinds of road surfaces. Similar testing is required for a new plant, for example. Does the plant work in the way the designers intended? That is even harder to predict with certainty in living things than an already complicated item such as a car. Thus, research will always be required in order to ultimately achieve a result that works properly and does not have any other drawbacks.
Genetic modification is one of the tools that synthetic biologists can use to implement their designs. Often, this will involve a combination of multiple genetic elements which are custom-made using modern techniques and then transferred. For example, when designing a bacterium that can break down soil contamination, the biologists will make a combination of genes which ensure that the bacterium can detect the contaminant and genes which cause the contamination to be broken down into harmless components. The genes are then introduced to the bacterium by means of genetic modification.
Synthetic biology often builds on knowledge from systems biology. Systems biology studies biological systems, always looking 'up and down'. To this end, systems biologists use computer programs that simulate reality. In these computer models, results from research into plant cells, for example, are linked to results from research into molecules in the plant (a 'lower' level) and in complete plants (a 'higher' level). This creates a much better understanding of biological systems and their building blocks. That understanding is crucial in order to be able to design new biological systems and is therefore very important for synthetic biology.
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Designs and ideas from synthetic biology can therefore be important for consumers in all kinds of ways. For example, the designs by synthetic biologists at Wageningen University & Research can help people to be healthier, live more sustainably, prepare tastier food, etc. Because synthetic biology is still so new, researchers are devising new applications daily – applications that can often also be important for consumers.
In itself, synthetic biology is safe. After all, it is only about devising and designing new things. If a design is actually put into practice and a product is created, that product must comply with all the requirements which apply in the Netherlands to make sure it is safe. This may mean requirements on food safety, medical safety, environmental safety and so on.
In some cases, it is not only the product but also the way in which the product is made which is important. For example, if the synthetic biologists have made a design which requires genetic modification in order to actually implement the design, the producer and the product must comply with all the safety requirements for genetically modified products.
If designers take the safety of the product they will ultimately be developing into account from the very beginning, synthetic biology can actually deliver additional safety assurance. This approach is also known as 'safety by design'.
At Wageningen University & Research (WUR), a great deal of attention is paid to synthetic biology. Our own investments have made various new research programmes possible.
Researchers at WUR are working on designs for very small and very large things. Examples of small things are new proteins which can be used as medicines. With their knowledge of the properties of the components from which proteins are made, the researchers are making new designs for new medicines.
They are also working on new cells, new organs, such as an electric nose made of so-called receptor cells, and new plants. Complete ecosystems, such as soil and intestinal flora, are the 'biggest' things Wageningen researchers are working on with synthetic biology.
A selection of projects about synthetic biology
iGEM student competition
For over ten years, students from all over the world have been competing for the annual iGEM trophy for the best design and implementation of a micro-organism developed using synthetic biology. Naturally, when doing so the students must take into account all kinds of safety aspects of their idea. Wageningen students have made it to the big international final, the jamboree, a number of times.
Read more about the competition and synthetic biology, about the winners from previous years and a video archive with images of the global iGEM jamboree.
- website iGEM: igem.org
- iGEM participation Wageningen University
- Wageningen iGEM Team 2017: Wageningse studenten ontwikkelen diagnostische test voor zika (in Dutch)
Bioscience and Society
The Stichting Biowetenschappen en Maatschappij (biosciences and society foundation) has issued a booklet on synthetic biology, with lots of examples and illustrations. The booklet is in Dutch, and costs €7.50 but can also be viewed online for free.
The Rathenau Institute has a number of pages about systems biology on its website. There you will find general explanation but also possible future scenarios involving synthetic biology and the role that that discipline may go on to play in society.
The Rathenau Institute encourages public and political engagement on the social aspects of science and technology, conducts research in the area and promotes the debate about science, innovation and new technologies.
More information in Dutch: