Synthetic Biology

Synthetic Biology

The methods of biotechnology are somewhat standardized: the specific gene is extracted from the DNA of a natural organism and transferred into another organism, which can produce with higher speed and efficiency the protein associated with the gene.

Synthetic biology has emerged by combining the concepts of systems biology, whose goal is the understanding of complex biological systems as a whole, with biotechnology, which has technological objectives. Synthetic biology aims not only to achieve the direct synthesis of a gene by chemistry, genetic engineering or nanotechnology, but also the use of engineering approaches (as in computer science or robotics) for a rational design of new biological systems.

There are several strategies:

Top-down The so-called "top-down" approach is to change a natural biological system to obtain a simpler system, easier to understand and handle. For example, one can remove many of its genes from a bacterium, keeping only the minimum necessary for survival under laboratory conditions, as the "Mycoplasma laboratorium" of the J.C. Venter Institute. Another example is the "Synthia" project, carried out by the same laboratory, where natural DNA of the bacterium was completely replaced with a synthetic DNA.

Bottom-up The opposite approach, called "bottom-up", is to define basic building blocks with well defined functions and assemble them to make biological systems, much like a Lego set. This strategy is used in the iGEM competition on synthetic biology, hosted every year by MIT and involving a thousand students.

Proto-cells We can go even further and create "proto-cells", vesicles with walls similar to membranes of living cells, which can selectively absorb small molecules and transform them inside using simple cellular machinery. These proto-cells can perform various functions such as detection and reporting of health disorders before symptoms of disease occur. In particular, proto-cells launched in the digestive system and naturally eliminated can be used as a non-invasive diagnostic system.

These approaches are complementary and aim to advance our knowledge in biology and evolutionary science. They have also many industrial applications. Today, the status of synthetic biology is similar to that of synthetic chemistry in the nineteenth century. Synthetic chemistry allowed the synthesis of quinine, aspirin and paints, and in the twentieth century, drugs, synthetic fibers and plastics. Synthetic biology seeks the use of natural diversity and biological systems to produce drugs, biofuels and materials of tomorrow.

Meanwhile several applications have already emerged:

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