Synthetic biology, the next revolution.

You might have heard about synthetic biology and how the field is shaping up to become the next technology revolution. But what is it?

Guadalupe Alvarez
May 17, 2020 · 3 min read

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

Photo by Jan Kopřiva on Unsplash

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

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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