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Synthetic biology comes of age as answer to industrial problems

19 August, 2011

Synthetic biology, while still a relatively new field, is already well advanced to deliver solutions to common industrial waste and energy challenges.

Imagine if we could make cells to help us tackle today's challenges - cells that could clean up oil spills, produce fuel, or break down waste.

Dr Jim Haseloff, from the Department of Plant Sciences at Cambridge University in the UK, was recently on a lecture tour of Australia championing the cause of synthetic biology, which he said was allowing scientists to reprogram life from manufactured genomes.

Once only possible in the realm of sci-fi and scientists' dreams, the ability to engineer new life forms is tantalisingly close to being a reality.

"Synthetic biology goes beyond traditional genetic modification of inserting a single gene into an organism, to using formal engineering principles for construction of genetically programmed biological systems," Dr Haseloff explained.

"It's a new way of building organisms, as it entails the adoption of engineering principles of standardisation, abstraction and decoupling in biological construction.

"The new approach to reprogramming biological systems offers exciting potential for improving sustainable technologies, new feedstocks and therapies."

Dr Haseloff said research on plant genetics was paving the way for the ability to engineer plants with specialised features for producing food, fuels, biomass, polymers and drugs.

"The field of synthetic biology is still very young, still being defined and still coming together, but it's a paradigm shift in the way we regard and work with biological systems," Dr Haseloff said.

"While recombinant DNA technology has advanced at a rapid pace over the last 35 years, the cloning and assembly of synthetic DNA sequences remains a largely bespoke affair.

"The field is in a situation similar to mechanical engineering in the early 1800s and microelectronics in the early 1950s, when rapid progress required the adoption of standardised interchangeable parts and modular construction methods.

"Engineers were then free to reap the benefits of abstraction and decoupling to accelerate the design process, and aid the development of new parts and subsystems. These issues are even more pressing for the design of living systems.

"There are huge pressures to move away from our current reliance on non-renewable resources for energy and materials, and to improve food sources and environmental quality. Synthetic biology can help us design organisms that can provide solutions to these problems."