Synthetic biology – engineering new microbes

Synthetic biology is one of those futuristic concepts, like nanotechnology and regenerative medicine, which everyone feels is going to be a key technology for the 21st century but few really understand. All are a bit fuzzy in their definition – and practitioners are not clear about how much they are already happening and how much they lie in the future.

In effect, synthetic biology takes genetic engineering beyond the insertion or manipulation of individual genes, which scientists have been doing for 30 years. The idea is to engineer large numbers of genes at the same time to transform micro-organisms – and potentially even create new organisms from scratch – in ways that enable them for example to make previously inaccessible drugs or biofuels.

Britain’s Royal Academy of Engineering draws attention to the potential of synthetic biology in an excellent new report this week. Its message is that a national strategy of research and training in synthetic biology is essential, if the country is not to lose out in the next industrial revolution in the life sciences.

“The UK missed out in the 1970s microchip revolution because the government and decision-makers were not fully informed by experts in the field about its potential,” said Richard Kitney of Imperial College London, lead author of the RAE report, at its launch at the Science Media Centre. “Synthetic biology is destined to become of critical importance to building the nation’s wealth.”

Beyond the UK-oriented call to arms, the report is a good summary of who is doing what in synthetic biology.

The fact that an engineering body has written a report about biology may seem surprising at first – but it turns out that one of the key features of the new field is the application of rigorous engineering principles to the design of biological systems. Moving on from gene replacement on a case-by-case basis, biological engineers are developing standard procedures for designing, modelling, testing and validating methods to make and use synthetic DNA.

No-one will be surprised to learn that the US is well ahead of the rest of the world in both the basic science and the early commercialisation of synthetic biology. The RAE report lists 18 companies active in synthetic biology, of which 14 are based in the US.

Prominent American researchers include Craig Venter, the genomics pioneer, who is on the verge of building a simple microbe from scratch using laboratory chemicals, and Jay Keasling of the University of California Berkeley, who has engineered yeast to make artemisinin, the anti-malarial drug currently extracted from wormwood plants.

The world of research

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Clive Cookson, the FT's science editor, picks out the research that everyone should know about, in fields from astronomy to zoology. He also discusses key policy issues, from R&D funding to science education. He'll cover the weird and wonderful, as well as the serious side of science.