Synthetic biology: natural transformation for the benefit of mankind and the environment

By reconfiguring DNA from different sources, it is possible to replicate and optimize a given organism. This is the essence of synthetic biology, a new science that can change patterns and make life better in many segments.

Because synthetic biology is a sensitive area of science, it is mandatory to create rules to avoid abuses!

The first scientist to succeed in synthetic biology was Friedrich Wöhler, a German chemist who, in 1828, applied ammonium chloride to silver isocyanate to produce urea, the main nitrogen-bearing compound found in mammalian urine. Wöhler synthesized an organic substance from inorganic matter. Officially, synthetic biology began to be employed, as of 2003. 

In addition to industry and the environment, synthetic biology extends to other fields, such as chemistry, biology, engineering, physics, computer science, and biomimicry, which seeks solutions to needs inspired by nature. 

Synthetic biology began to be worldwide known in 2010, when American scientist, John Craig Venter created the first artificially living organism ever!

The new life form was made possible after printing DNA created from digital data that was inoculated into a living bacterium that was replicated into a synthetic version of the bacterium Mycoplasma mycoides (this microorganism is a parasite that lives in ruminants).

The computer was the father of the first living organism!

There is a database available on the Internet with thousands of DNA "recipes" to be printed, known as ‚Äúbiobricks‚ÄĚ.

The new bacterium with a synthetic genome acts exactly like their natural version, i.e. they act according to the given programmed instructions.

Some applications of synthetic biology already in production:

  • Insects - Spiders may provide the raw material for making clothing once their DNA produces silk fibers. So it was possible to reproduce a synthetic fiber with the same chemical characteristics as the natural fiber the spider makes.
  • Animals - Synthetic milk can be made artificially. The new milk, Muufri, was created by two vegan bioengineers. It has the same taste and nutritional characteristics as the original.¬†
  • Fuels - Scientists are trying to create microbes that can break down dense raw materials (such as switchgrass) to produce biofuels. Biogas is a great example of new synthetic fuel. In this case, made from organic waste.
  • Fishes - a filament extracted from hagfish is synthesized by Benthic Labs and used to make rope, packaging, clothing, and health products. Actually, its DNA code is introduced into the bacterial colony, which begins to synthesize the strand. The filament is ten times thinner than hair, stronger than nylon, steel, and has absorbent and antimicrobial properties.
  • Standardized biological parts -¬†identifying and cataloging standardized genomic parts that can be used (and synthesized rapidly) to build new biological systems.
  • Applied protein design -¬†redesigning existing biological parts, expanding the natural protein function set for new processes.
  • Natural product synthesis -¬†engineering microbes to produce all the enzymes and biological functions needed to accomplish complex multi-step production of natural products.
  • Synthetic genomics -¬†building a 'simple' genome for a natural bacterium
These applications of synthetic biology reinforce the concept of the circular economy shown also when the bacteria eats plastic.

What is the difference between systems biology and synthetic biology and how do they fit into genetic engineering?

Systems biology 

Studies complex natural biological systems, using modeling, simulation, and comparison tools to perform the experiments. 

Synthetic biology 

Studies how to build artificial biological systems, using the same experimental tools and techniques. That is, it "assembles" new microbial genomes from a set of standardized genetic parts that are inserted into a microbe or cell. 

Genetic engineering, therefore, involves the transfer of individual genes from one microbe or cell to another.

Cybernetics is an emerging field that is developing experimental tools for the computerized control of cellular processes at the gene level in real-time. Cybernetic control can be achieved by interfacing living cells with a digital computer that turns the built-in "gene switch" on or off, using light (optogenetics) or chemicals.


      The bottom line

      Synthetic biology, being a science of transformation, can be a two-way street because of vested interests and inappropriate opportunism. One of the biggest obstacles will be, therefore, to identify, still in time, the real purposes of its characters.

      Besides strict norms, ethics will be the only way to control the replication of organisms focused exclusively on gene therapies, hereditary diseases, and the environment.

      Virus engineering can never be aimed at creating deadly pathogens (no "second thoughts" here, by the way)!