Illustration of the world of synthetic biology: a new phase in science


animated bacteria, bioenergy, synthetic biology graphic
With novel technologies, it is becoming commonplace to manipulate microbes to acquire desired effects. Shown is a bacterium with foreign gene pathways (glowing) that enable this cell to efficiently produce a desired product.

First, there was biology which began in earnest in the 19th century. Then came molecular biology in the 1920s and the foundation of mutagenesis set forth by Herman Muller in 1927. Then, genetic engineering was first applied in 1972 the lab of Paul Berg. Finally, humans had the ability to manipulate living organisms in a specific, directed way. Fast forward 38 years to the announcement by J. Craig Venter that the first synthetic organism was created with a completely synthetic genome. However, Mother Nature is very particular about what exactly humans can do with respect to organismal manipulation. The naive thought that simple addition of genes from one organism into a more suitable organism would lead to theoretical, effective production of desired chemicals was soon the way of the albatros.

This is when scientists had to take a step back and rethink their strategy. They had to consider gene regulation (positive and negative feedback), build-up of secondary metabolites, toxicity of produced end products, etc. It wasn’t enough to add genes coding for enzymes necessary for desired chemical production. Through the advancements of bioinformatics, computation biology, and a nascent field called systems biology, scientists are just now starting to see the fruits of their labor.

Humor me; type in “engineering bacteria” into Google News. Take a look at the headlines that pop up in your browser. Look at the amazing advancements that are happening currently and imagine what is to come…

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