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What is Synthetic Biology?
As one of the rapidly-advancing scientific fields, synthetic biology seeks to make the design, construction or optimization of biological systems easier, more predictable and reliable. This is achieved through the assembly of core biomolecules as engineered parts in proteins, metabolic pathways and microbial strains. Through iterative cycles of "design, build, and test", in silico design ideas are optimized to ensure maximum efficiency and yield in the final bio-product. The ultimate goal of such efforts is to either enhance the biological functions of existing systems or create novel biological systems to obtain an improved or novel bio-based product, respectively.
What are the Applications of Synthetic Biology?
Synthetic biology has a wide spectrum of applications in health, agriculture, informatics and energy sectors. Application of synthetic biology principles in these industries allows for the development of bio-based therapeutics, diagnostics, chemicals, materials, new means for data storage, bioremediation, food production and energy generation. As the birthplace of synthetic biology, basic life science research also benefits from its offspring to further advance its frontiers. Ultimately, these applications improve the lives of humans, animals and plants and help preserve the environment.
What are the Highlights of Synthetic Biology’s Achievements in 2018?
Major areas where synthetic biology had the greatest advancements last year were in adoption of new technologies, seeking investment, development of programs and sponsorships, and applications in large industrial scale.
Technological advancements in synthesis, automation and computing platforms in 2018 greatly helped synthetic biology move forward. Improved or novel DNA synthesis methodologies, such as semiconductor chip/array-based technologies by CustomArray®, provided synthetic biologists with high quality gene and gene fragments in large quantities with significantly reduced production cost. To help with the assembly or cloning of these synthetic DNA in a high-throughput manner, a variety of leading biotech vendors developed more efficient DNA cloning kits, such as GenBuilder™ Plus Cloning Kit by GenScript, with less procedure-time and higher efficiency at reduced cost. These two fundamental tools, set the stage for cell-free, automated production and screening platforms to take off. Using a master mix containing the transcription and translation machineries of an organism combined with synthetic plasmid DNA, Arbor Biosciences developed myTXTL platform to produce a variety of proteins in a tube, in only a few minutes with high yield. Tierra Biosciences combined its cell-free expression platform with Labcyte’s Echo® liquid handler for high-throughput screening of synthetic proteins.
Large scale application of synthetic biology’s ideas in agriculture and other industries was among the greatest achievements of the field last year. One example is the first clean alternative to synthetic nitrogen fertilizer, PROVEN™ developed by Pivot Bio, which allowed farmers to produce healthier corn with higher yield. By fine-tuning genes involved in nitrogen fixation pathway in nitrogen-producing soil microbes, nitrogen can now be directly transferred to plant’s roots towards efficient plant nutrition and elimination of environmental pollution caused by chemical fertilizers. In healthcare, using CRISPR technology, Mammoth Biosciences developed a paper-based diagnostic test that is affordable, easy to use at home or in a hospital. By incorporating a reporter molecule that exudes color upon snipping of a specific DNA or RNA sequence and whose signal is visible to the naked eye, a disease or pathogen can be easily identified within an hour. In another front, the Swiss luxury watchmaker OMEGA used AMSilk’s Biosteel® fiber in its watch straps. This 100% natural biopolymer, which is inspired by spider silk, offers a combination of strength and elasticity while being ultralight and biodegradable.
Venture funding for synthetic biology startups in 2018 reached a record high $1.9 billion, just by early August. This 73% growth over 2017, which was mainly from funds for later-stage companies, not only helped recipient companies to expedite or expanded their plans, but also encouraged venture capitalists wary of this new field to seriously consider the field for future investment. Overall, this great achievement helps with the continued growth and innovation in the field, especially with regard to the new wave of early-stage syn bio startups.
What does the Future of Synthetic Biology Look Like in 2019?
Great accomplishments in the field have definitely poised syn bio to dream bigger and aim higher this year. Continued efforts towards successful integration of computing, synthesis and production platforms is foreseen to both accelerate and simplify the generation of novel or existing biomolecules whose production with traditional methods is not possible or efficient. The first beneficiary of such concerted efforts is the pharmaceutical sector with the capacity to develop biosimilars, vaccines and antibodies to fight resistant diseases and reduce treatment cost.
Other upcoming plans will focus around further strengthening the breadth and depth of the creative and multi-disciplinary workforce in the field, considering the market when designing products, increasing awareness about the benefit of the field to the public to increase investment and application, and incorporating IoT (Internet of Things) in synthetic biology labs to ensure consistency across experimental parameters and data accessibility among collaborators.
The Green New Deal, proposed by the US House of Representatives, has already offered a great jumpstart to syn bio efforts this year where direct public support and federal funds for the development of bio-based green solutions can not only invigorate this sector, but also trickle into strengthening other aspects of synthetic biology’s applications. The latest effort by Amino Labs, a synthetic biology company in Canada to partner with MindFuel, a leading organization in educational STEM towards expanding the field among K-12 students is another sign for the bright prospect of the field in 2019. So, let’s continue supporting the field, working harder towards bringing great ideas into reality and envisioning a day where syn bio is a commonly-used phrase and the mainstream approach of production around the world.