Since the beginning of the year, synthetic biology startups have attracted $3 billion. Scientists promise that in this area of science it is possible to create completely new DNA sequences and new biological systems that have never existed in nature. We will tell you more about the works in question.
When did synthetic biology come into being?
The term “synthetic biology” was first used in 1980 by Barbara Rob to describe a bacteria that was genetically modified using recombinant DNA technology.
Twenty years later, in 2000, the term was again proposed by Eric Call, along with colleagues and other speakers, to describe the synthesis of artificial organic molecules that play a role in living systems.
Thus, back in 2002 the first completely artificial virus was born, and 8 years later Cynthia, the first viable bacteria with a completely artificial genome, was born.
How does the new direction in science work?
The very idea of synthetic biology is developing “around” genomic engineering. In recent years, new, extremely convenient molecular instruments have appeared with the help of which it is possible to change the genome of almost any organism in any way.
Synthetic biology applies an engineering approach to the formation of living organisms – from enzymes to microbes. In the future, scientists will be able to form the human genome, and work in this direction is already underway.
In the essence of the new direction laid the possibility of actually programming the code of living creatures. This, of course, will affect their development. There are already tools that allow editing DNA and creating new gene combinations.
What is interesting about this direction?
In order to change the code of living things, you need to understand the laws of life. Gradually, by studying synthetic biology, one can shed light on some biological patterns.
Nevertheless, the practical value of synthetic biology is as important as scientific. Since the industrial revolution, man has exhausted the forces of nature – now he can control the development of living organisms.
Synthetic biology can also create more environmentally friendly products, such as artificially grown meat or biofuels. In this way, it can cause minimal harm to the planet.
Examples of work
DNA in living cells can be described, understood and studied using programming terms. Indeed, let us look at DNA through the eyes of a programmer.
-The DNA language is digital, using four values: A, T, C and G; “DNA byte” is composed of three characters and encodes one amino acid.
-In eukaryotes, part of the “code”, a sequence of introns, does not actually encode anything and is then cut out. However, they perform an essential function: this DNA helps to execute the code correctly, like comments in programs.
-The universality of the genetic code makes genetic programs compatible with the vast majority of living organisms.
A revolutionary breakthrough took place on May 20, 2010. This day will forever go down in history as the day when the creation of the first living cell capable of reproduction on the basis of synthesized genome was announced. An artificial living organism was created at the Craig Venter Institute under the direction of Craig Venter himself.
In total, it took more than 15 years to create the first synthetic organism capable of reproduction, but this event has a revolutionary potential for science and may allow mankind to solve the most large-scale problems, such as new sources of food raw materials, medicines and vaccines, victory over environmental pollution, synthesis of clean water and others.
Scientists are striving to create an extensive genetic bank that will allow them to create any desired organism (by analogy with the creation of an electronic circuit from industrial transistors and diodes). The bank consists of bioBricks (BioBrick), DNA fragments whose function is strictly defined and which can be introduced into genome cells to synthesize a predefined protein. All selected biobricks are designed to interact well with all others on two levels:
-mechanical – so that they can be easily manufactured, stored and incorporated into the genetic chain;
-software – so that each brick sends certain chemical signals and interacts with other code fragments.
In this case, synthetic biology uses various technologies, including machine learning. The article Nature Communications describes algorithms that can predict how changes in a cell’s DNA will affect its behavior. The algorithms can also provide recommendations for future developments by bioengineers.
At the same time, there are concerns that working with the human genome may lead to irreversible consequences. It is also believed that some groups of organisms may change in this way forever.
Thus, a recent Pew Research survey showed that the majority of the population considers genetically modified products unsafe for eating.