What is Synthetic Biology?

Synthetic biology, or SynBio, is popping up more and more frequently in the news. In 2010, Craig Venter was accused of ‘playing God’ when his team created the ‘first synthetic life form’ – bacteria with DNA that was built entirely from scratch. At the beginning of this year, researchers at the Scripps Institute announced that they had expanded a microbe’s genetic code with two new ‘letters’ – X and Y – which would allow these cells to be ‘programmed.’ In May, synthetic biologists revealed that they had engineered baker’s yeast to produce the antibiotic penicillin.

It all sounds very exciting! But – what exactly is synthetic biology? Wikipedia tells us that:

‘Synthetic biology has been recently defined as the artificial design and engineering of biological systems and living organisms for purposes of improving applications for industry or biological research.’

Which, frankly, is a bit of a mouthful. It gets even more confusing when a Google search reveals that no one seems to quite agree what SynBio is. With that in mind, we asked a few synthetic biology PhD students to help clear things up.


Henry Stennett

What does Synthetic Biology mean to you?

To promote its beloved video game Team Fortress 2, Valve made a series of brilliantly surreal YouTube shorts. In ‘Meet the Engineer’, the titular character strums a soothing bluesy guitar progression while bullets fly pell-mell past his head, and explains in gravelly tones how he sees the world and his place in it:

‘Hey look buddy, I’m an engineer – that means I solve problems. Not problems like, “What is beauty?” because that would fall within the purview of your conundrums of philosophy. I solve practical problems…

*screams from off screen*

‘For instance: how am I gonna stop some big mean Mother Hubbard from tearing me a structurally superfluous new behind? The answer? Use a gun. And if that don’t work? Use more gun.’

Although most engineers don’t approach their work with a cynicism quite so chilling, many would agree that their discipline is about problem solving and practical applications. Synthetic biology applies the engineering science to living systems, with the aim of re-designing organisms to have reliable, reproducible, and more useful properties.

Why did you want to work in this area?

For my Master’s, I worked on a fundamental research project – I was trying to figure out how a group of organising proteins work in bacterial cells. While I enjoyed my time in lab, there were times when experiments weren’t working, or data analysis was difficult, and it was hard to remember what I was trying to do. Sometimes, ‘find out how this works’ can feel frustratingly vague. I want to do research that feels more immediately connected to applications, with a clear goal to keep me motivated when the going gets tough.

The UK Government has highlighted synthetic biology for its potential to ‘heal us, heat and feed us’, which only hints at the diverse potential applications of the field: reliable sources of medicines, biofuels, industrial chemicals, fragrances and flavours. Synthetic biologists are designing new technologies to remove pollution, new therapeutics that better interact with our bodies,  and nature-inspired materials with Sci-Fi capabilities. It feels like a field that will make a difference, and I want to be involved.

What’s happening in SynBio that excites you?

Microbial cell factories. The idea is to find interesting reactions in nature, transfer the necessary genes to cells that are easier to work with, and optimise the resulting organism. When you grow your cells, they act like millions of tiny factories, taking cheap building blocks like sugar and converting them into valuable products.

Of course it’s not quite as easy as it sounds, but some groups are already breaking new ground here. Tom Ellis’ lab have engineered yeast to produce antibiotics, Green Biologics are getting bacteria to produce butanol as a renewable biofuel, and Japanese company Spiber have already weaved spider silk made by bacteria into a Moon Parka.

What annoys you most about SynBio?

The blank stares when I tell people what I’m studying.

What’s next for the field?

It’s been said before (many times) but it’s time for synthetic biology to repay the faith invested in it. Hopefully in the next decade we’ll see a flurry of concrete outputs to justify the hype.


George Klemperer

What is SynBio to you?

Synthetic biology aims to take lessons from nature to develop new technologies. Researchers want to remove ‘evolutionary baggage’ – things that aren’t directly useful to us – from biology, and learn the principles of natural design. Ultimately, we hope to develop ‘biomimetic’ devices – machines that imitate the amazing abilities of living systems.

Why did you want to work in this area?

I wanted to do a PhD after finishing my Master’s because I enjoyed the creativity, curiosity and freedom of academic research. And the camaraderie that comes from sharing the last hours of an evening furiously preparing a presentation for tomorrow morning (which will inevitably have to be ad-libbed anyway after you forget to put it onto your USB drive). And the long digressive pub lunches which put us in that situation in the first place.

I wanted to do research in synthetic biology in particular because it’s constructive. You want to make something that didn’t exist before, elucidate a biological phenomenon, or develop new technology. It’s an engineering discipline in its infancy and as we discover more tools its applications will only grow wider. SynBio is a nascent field that has attracted ambitious academics, and sparked progressive and inventive research.

What’s happening in SynBio that excites you?

Materials innovation. At the interface of material chemistry and synthetic biology there is the potential to discover a whole new realm of smart materials, with potential applications in medicine, soft robotics, and biocompatible devices. New patterning technologies like 3D printing, and the emerging focus on interdisciplinary research are opening up this unexplored area of science.

What annoys you about SynBio?

Attempts to restrict its definition.

What’s next for the field?

Synthetic biology must continue to establish itself as a serious field to keep attracting talent, funding and attention. This means growth and responsible innovation, but also effective communication of synthetic biology’s potential and an open dialogue around research.

There are lots of reasons to be excited about synthetic biology’s future. There are hundreds of dedicated labs all over the world attempting to solve some of humanity’s most enduring challenges: hunger, disease, space colonization, and the origins of life. There is potential for synthetic biology to become an indispensable technology, one that will push back the boundaries of human knowledge.


Georgia Oakley

What does Synthetic Biology mean to you?

I think synthetic biology is the method and not an idea or product. SynBio takes concepts like reliability, reproducibility ,and sustainability from engineering disciplines and applies them to biological parts or systems. The modularity of SynBio is really important. Biological modules, like DNA and proteins, are built up in a ‘plug and play’ fashion – they are swapped in and out of a system so that we can learn about how systems function as a synergistic sum of their parts.

Why did you want to work in this area?

I was drawn to SynBio by the principle of designing biological systems, components and molecules with a specific goal in mind. Essentially, the application of engineering to biology appeals to me and I am enjoying implementing this in my own work. Using the principles of biology but bypassing the restraints of nature can lead to:

1. A better understanding of natural processes
2. Improvements in existing bio-technologies
3. Solutions to larger problems, from health and disease to renewable and carbon-neutral fuels.

What’s happening in SynBio that excites you?

Everything happening in SynBio interests me. The massive diversity of projects is incredible and will allow scientists to really explore the possibilities that biology can have outside the natural world.

My own research is in protein design. I’m creating proteins that have never (to our knowledge) existed on earth, and giving them ability to perform functions that help us in some way: from sequencing DNA, to detecting toxins or dangerous viruses. There are a myriad possibilities arising from this one small area within SynBio, so the potential of all of SynBio research is practically infinite.

What annoys you most about SynBio?

People using it as a buzzword without reference to the science.

What’s next for the field?

SynBio technologies need to be put to the uses they have been designed for. CRISPR technology, for example, is starting to be used in clinical trials to remove faulty genes from embryos. Similarly, metabolic engineering in microorganisms such as yeast is enabling production of renewable biofuels. We also need to continue expanding the presence of SynBio in the public consciousness, and to promote SynBio as a positive and helpful branch of science; hopefully we’re helping that at Bio by Design!

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