Synthetic Biology


Health Several drugs currently used are extracted from plants or act according to therapeutic principles of medicinal plants. They could be manufactured by synthesis or improved to reduce side effects. This may involve modifying the plant genome to improve therapeutic properties and integrating it into a process of chemical synthesis. Synthetic biology could also enable the development of personalized therapies: drugs could be tailor made depending on the patient's genome or adjusted to the patient's organism.

Infections are better treated if detected quickly and early, before disease symptoms appear. Infection detectors could by built using synthetic biology: when a pathogen enters the body, it triggers a chain of biochemical reactions producing a fluorescent protein, visible in ultraviolet light. They could be used to detect bacteria that cause urinary tract infections or Staphylococcus aureus, known to have developed resistance to antibiotics.

Damaged tissue can be repaired by tissue engineering. Burn victims receive skin transplants produced by techniques of artificial growth. Severe fractures are repaired by inserting scaffold materials for bone reconstruction: bone cells adhere to the scaffold, attach, grow and gradually replace the scaffold material. Cartilage can also be reconstituted by these methods. However, current techniques can not properly control the growth form. Synthetic biology could produce intelligent scaffolds with a better guidance of tissue growth and even extend the tissue engineering techniques to organ reconstruction.

Energy Bioethanol is used as fuel for vehicles or as an additive to gasoline to reduce harmful emissions. It is an alcohol produced by fermentation of sugars contained in plants. This process is performed by natural bacteria, but its effectiveness is limited. Synthetic biology could improve fermentation and enable the use, as raw material, of genetically modified plants able to grow throughout the year.

Another way is to grow bacteria or fungi capable of synthesizing heavier, more energetic alcohols such as butanol. These new microorganisms, produced by synthetic biology, could survive in butanol, unlike natural bacteria such as Escherichia coli or fungi as yeast. The same techniques could be used to produce biodiesel from vegetable oil, a cleaner fuel than conventional diesel.

At the same time, synthetic biology will seek to improve microorganisms capable of direct synthesis of hydrogen by photosynthesis, thus avoiding the use of sugars or cellulose as raw materials and preserving food crops.

Materials Spider silk, a material very light and resistant, can already be synthesized. Using traditional biotechnology techniques, the gene for spider silk has been isolated and introduced into the genome of a goat. Its milk-secreting cells also produce silk, we simply collect the milk and extract the silk. Synthetic biology could produce DNA sequences that do not exist in nature, paving the way for the development of new materials, more efficient, cheaper and environmentally friendly.

The mollusk's shell is a composite material: small plates of minerals such as limestone are trapped in an elastic protein mesh, which gives the shell exceptional hardness and strength. By synthesizing the genes involved in the shell structure, we hope to produce this type of composite materials with larger size and on a larger scale.

Polymers and plastics are increasingly important among the materials used today. They are produced from petroleum and, in general, are not biodegradable. Synthetic biology will enable the manufacture of new plastics from plants, which could also be biodegradable.

Environment Based on the biosensor developed for detecting arsenic in drinking water, other devices could be developed. They could detect toxic substances (dioxins, chlorinated derivatives), heavy metals (cadmium, mercury) or explosives (TNT) in the environment. In the next step, the biosensor could be coupled with genetically modified bacteria able to assimilate or degrade these toxins and clean the soil.

Emissions of carbon dioxide are the main contributors to global warming. Synthetic biology could develop artificial photosynthetic systems, able to assimilate with high efficiency carbon dioxide and convert it into plants.

Agriculture The development of new genetic technologies in agriculture is closely linked to the development of new environmentally friendly energy sources. Synthetic biology could produce new plants for use as raw materials in biofuel production. These plants would have a higher crop yield and could be processed more efficiently into fuel.

These plant crops could be optimized for harsh and complex environmentS, in view of climate change, and particularly for highly populated developing countries.

Finally, conventional chemical pesticides could be replaced by better targeted biological substances that degrade in the soil after having finished their action.

As with any new technology, synthetic biology raises optimism and enthusiasm, but also concern and distrust.

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