Synthetic biology

DNA synthetic biology - Copyright David Leys Engineered DNA. © David Leys.

By Royal Society University Research Fellow, Professor David Leys

University of Manchester

What is synthetic biology?

Since the middle of the last century, scientists have been documenting the chemical basis of life: how information is encoded by DNA and ultimately translated into the protein machinery of the cell. This allows us to influence evolution in a radically different way from the age-old selective breeding of domesticated species. Technology to read and write DNA is steadily improving, allowing us to create new genetic code with increasing ease. We are entering the era of synthetic biology - which aims to design or engineer new biological systems.

What will we use synthetic biology for?

The promise of synthetic biology lies in the ability to rewire or reprogram organisms and their molecular systems, aimed at creating practical applications in energy, environment and health. It promises to be fundamentally different from what can be achieved through selective breeding or even simple biotechnology, as it is not limited by the existing gene pool. For example, it has already been demonstrated that biological circuits can function similarly to simple electronic circuits.

Are there any ethical and safety issues?

Similar to other ground-breaking discoveries such as splitting the atom, our ability to impact on life’s genetic makeup itself comes with ever greater responsibility. Safeguards to prevent engineered organisms mixing with the natural environment or the technology being used with malicious intent need to be in place.

Can we create life in a test tube?

Not yet, but recently Craig Venter and colleagues replaced the DNA of a micro-organism with an entirely man-made and alternative genome, in effect replacing the manual of a living organism with a different one. It reproduced to create life encoded by the researchers, an important step towards achieving the goals of synthetic biology.