Putting it simply, synthetic biology is an engineering approach to biology. It involves the design and construction of biological parts to get them to do useful things inside cells.
Imagine cells as powerful tiny computers. They sense signals in their environment as inputs, and then compute the best available response, or output, according to the information written in their DNA. DNA is simply a chain of nucleotide molecules (called A, T, G and C) acting like a four-digit computer code (instead of 1s and 0s in binary code). This genetic code is organized into genes that determine specific functions.
You can almost think of genetics as the software of biology
Humans have been manipulating this software for hundreds of years. We have reshaped livestock and crops through selective breeding and completely altered ecosystems by moving species around.
By the 1970s we learned to accelerate this process by cutting and pasting pieces of DNA genes between organisms, which became the basis of biotechnology. What now enables synthetic biology is the ability to design and inexpensively synthesize DNA in test tubes and then insert them into cell hardware. This is a very powerful idea, as we are no longer limited by genes found in nature and the organisms themselves. Instead, we can write and program new genetic software to get cells to work in whole new ways.
Synthetic biology has new solutions for all sectors
This demonstrates the power of synthetic biology. It creates fascinating opportunities across healthcare, industry, agriculture, and the environment. For example, we could design smart cells with the ability to sense your health status and produce the drug that you need, in the right quantity and at the right time. Synthetic biology also provides new ways to help the environment. We can build organisms that decompose and consume plastic waste, or that even assimilate atmospheric CO2 directly, and then convert it to different valuable compounds, like medicines or vaccines.
Synthetic biology could also help us feed the world. By engineering cells to help plants fix and absorb nitrogen, we would no longer rely on the heavy use of fertilizer to grow our crops. From an industrial viewpoint, every product currently manufactured by conventional processes could be fermented by designed organisms at large scales in huge bioreactors (in the same way we currently brew beer with yeast). Essentially, every natural compound could be easily industrialized.
Synthetic biology has massive potential
Hopefully, these examples help you visualize the power of synthetic biology. The applications of this field are limitless, and it has been reflected by remarkable growth. The global market for products produced by synthetic biology is already quite large, and will approach an estimate of almost $20B by 2025. Though this is already showing very great demand, it only comprises a small percentage of the sectors the field is looking to disrupt. Many sectors have the potential for massive transformation by the introduction of biological technologies, and all participants need to strongly consider synthetic biology in their commercial strategy. That largely includes having honest conversations about the arising questions in biosecurity and ethics, as well as educating the public on the potential of this new technology.
We need to ensure that as a community we focus on safely applying synthetic biology to address the major problems in our society. Synthetic biology is an extremely fast-moving and exciting field with extraordinary potential, and we need to pay attention.
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