The new bio-revolution is here!

What if we explored a more natural kind of technology? Hello Synbio!

Nature vs nurture. Nature vs technology. Nature vs humanity. Nature seems to be continually pitted against something else. What if, instead of being the opponent in these never-ending games, nature was the inspiration for progress: a more natural kind of technology.

Introducing Synthetic Biology or Synbio as you’ll soon be calling it once we get you better acquainted!

And who better to be our guide into Synthetic Biology than Nadine Bongaerts, a PhD researcher in Synthetic Biology by day at INSERM in Paris and our very own Vice-President of Hello Tomorrow by night. She has dedicated her career to engineering life and exploring the ways Nature and Technology are almost infinitely intertwined.

So, let’s start at the beginning. Nadine, what’s synthetic biology exactly?

Nadine: “ Synthetic biology is a mix of disciplines that aims to redesign nature or even create life entirely from scratch. The last ambition is still far away, but we are getting better and better at designing organisms that could do all sorts of useful stuff for us, humans.

Really? Like, what?

Spider Silk!

Nature is very good at making almost an infinite number of chemicals and doing it in a way that doesn’t harm the environment, like the web of a spider. True, our human-made chemistry has brought us a lot, but we generally also generate a lot of toxic side products during the process. Synbio reprograms cells to become micro-factories that manufacture fuels, plastics, medicine, food additives, fragrances and very complex molecules that we can not even make with human-chemistry. So yeah, now we know how to mass produce spider silk without bothering spiders!

Kill Cancer!

We can also use the same techniques to reprogram our very own cells. Since the discovery of CRISPR Cas as a gene editing tool, it has been significantly easier to make changes in the human genome. New therapies are already on the way as a result of these developments and will help us to cure diseases related to blindness, sickle cell anaemia or program, even reprogram our immune cells to recognise and kill cancer.

Finding new drugs!

Because bacteria are getting more and more resistant to antibiotics, discovering is a crucial but difficult task. Antibiotics typically target a specific enzyme in bacteria. Enzymes are small biological nanomachines that cells use to do all sorts of tasks. From transporting nutrients in and out the cell to converting sugar into energy. Some of these enzymes are so important for bacteria, that if you block them with an antibiotic, the bacteria die. You often have to test hundreds of thousands of molecules that potentially kill the bacteria.
It’s especially problematic for pathogenic bacteria that grow very slow because it means you have to wait a long time before you can see if a molecule has an effect or not and the experiments can take weeks.

Let’s take an example. Mycobacterium tuberculosis (Mtb) is the name of the bacterium that causes tuberculosis. Unfortunately, Mtb is growing extremely slowly and is difficult to work with. However, in our lab, we use synthetic biology to discover new antibiotics against tuberculosis without testing molecules on the tuberculosis bacteria themselves. Instead, we use a harmless lab bacterium that grows almost 200x faster than Mtb!
Just as you sometimes use a mouse as a model organism to test drugs meant for human, we use genetically engineered lab bacteria with a “piece of tuberculosis” as a ‘mouse model’ for the tuberculosis bacteria. This could potentially make the discovery a lot faster.

So synthetic biology applications can have a drastic impact on our planet, right?

They sure do. Here’s an example. Many viruses reach us humans by transporting themselves via insects. One example is the Zika virus that infects humans mostly through mosquito bites. With synthetic biology, we have an opportunity to eradicate the spread of viruses such as Zika by genetically engineering mosquitoes with what we call gene drives. Gene drives work like this.
Typically when two mosquitoes mate, there is 50% chance that a specific gene is inherited from the mother mosquito or the father mosquito. But when a mosquito carrying a gene drive mates with another mosquito, the chance that the gene is inherited becomes 100%! When the gene of choice makes the baby mosquitoes infertile, you can imagine that every new generation is not capable of reproduction. As a result, this could lead to the extinction of entire mosquito species and thus to the spread of the virus.
There is currently much debate concerning this technology. How safe is it to deploy this method? Is it a better option than bombarding the mosquitoes with toxic insecticides? Also, what are the long-term effects on an ecosystem? Precise answers to these questions are not clear at the moment and require more research.

Alright, now that we have painted in very broad strokes, what Synbio is and how it has the power to affect our lives, let’s dig a little deeper, cause Synbio seems like it’s no easy feat!

That’s for sure! Giving a cell new instructions to execute, impacts the thousands of reactions that are already happening. Unfortunately, we don’t have all the right tools to predict how the cells will behave precisely when this happens. So doing synthetic biology often means trying many genetic software versions and many conditions to figure out how to get the desired result. New developments in A.I. may help us to better choices, and with robotics, we can test a lot more combinations without pipetting everything by hand. Robotics and AI are therefore also essential technologies to make synthetic biology a more efficient and faster.

Are you still with us? Well, now you have a firm grasp on all the underlying concepts in Synthetic Biology. Congrats! As a bonus, could you tell us about something extraordinary happening in this field?

Storing data in DNA is a crazy idea that has been around for quite a while now. But recent breakthroughs showed that it might be close to happening for real. Translating the binary code of our digital data into a DNA spiral is actually less complex than it seems. The whole challenge is that at this moment, writing and reading the DNA is a bit expensive… Storing this article in DNA would cost about 15 000 dollars and reading it back would cost around 4 000 dollars. But in the near future, the price should plummet. This way of storing data is potentially a solution to the staggering amount of data we’re producing, as we would only need 1kg to store all the world’s data. Promising, eh?

To sum up, what is really interesting about synthetic biology is that it forces us to ‘rethink’ what technology is. We often see technology and nature as to opposites. However when human-engineered biology is the technology, is therefore unnatural.

If you ask me, nature has and always will be a technological masterpiece. So why do we perceive technology as being something unnatural? We are just adding new biotechnologies to the evolutionary inventory.

The future I imagine is one where many of today’s products will come from synthetic biology, from the spider silk clothes you’ll wear and the biofuel you’ll put in your car, to pills with engineered bacteria you‘ll use to detect early signs of cancer.

The new bio-revolution has only just begun and is unstoppable! ”

Thanks Nadine for that fascinating insight into synbio!

Wanna learn more about Synthetic Biology? Come and meet leading scientists and science-entrepreneurs during our next Global Summit, March 14–15, 2019! Register your interest there.