Synthetic biology is a multidisciplinary field of science that involves designing, constructing, and manipulating biological systems and organisms using engineering principles. Scientists can create new biological functions, modify existing organisms, or even design entirely new life forms by combining biology, engineering, and computer science in synthetic biology. It has vast applications in areas including medicine, biotechnology, molecular biology, genetic engineering, molecular engineering, chemical engineering, biophysics, evolutionary biology, electrical and computer engineering, agriculture, energy production, and environmental sustainability. In the real world, there are various examples, illustrating the importance and achievement of synthetic biology.
1. Synthetic spider silk production
Spider silk is known for its exceptional strength, elasticity, and biodegradability, which makes it an ideal material for various applications, ranging from textiles to biomedical devices. However, harvesting spider silk directly from spiders is time-consuming and inefficient, prompting scientists to explore alternative methods. Through genetic engineering and bioengineering techniques, researchers have been able to produce synthetic spider silk by replicating the proteins found in natural spider silk. This process involves extracting the DNA sequence responsible for producing spider silk proteins and transferring it into another organism such as bacteria (E.coli) or yeast. These genetically modified organisms then produce the desired silk proteins, which can be harvested and processed into usable materials. A golden tapestry woven from spider silk at the American Museum of National History is a popular example of its application.
Synthetic spider silk production is a cutting-edge technology that has garnered significant attention in recent years. It has the potential to revolutionize industries such as aerospace, medicine, and textile due to its extraordinary properties and highly sustainable nature. With its impressive strength-to-weight ratio, it is perfect for creating lightweight and strong sports fabrics. In the field of medicine, its biocompatibility and ability to biodegrade make it highly promising for making bioresorbable sutures, artificial muscles, tissue scaffolds, and drug delivery systems. Due to its transparency, spider silk has great imaging applications as superlenses in optical instruments. It has immense potential in the automotive industry, where it can produce lighter yet durable parts and improve fuel efficiency without compromising safety or performance. However, further research is still needed to optimize production methods and scale-up processes for commercial viability.
Short for biological sensors, biosensors are devices that combine biological elements with modern technology to detect specific biomolecules. Through the integration of biological components such as enzymes, antibodies, DNA, microorganisms, cell receptors, and tissues, biosensors can convert biochemical reactions into measurable signals via physicochemical transduction (mass-based, electrochemical-based, and optical-based biosensors). They are like super-sensitive detectors used in various fields to understand what’s happening on a molecular level. Due to their high sensitivity, low cost, high efficiency, and specificity, biosensors are advantageous over lab-based equipment and have wide applications in biomedical research, microelectronics, biotechnology, environmental monitoring, food safety, and disease diagnostics. Some of the commonly used biosensors in these areas are as follows:
It is a commercially produced Glucose biosensor and is used by people with diabetes to measure their blood sugar levels. A glucometer works by detecting glucose in a small blood sample, helping patients monitor their health.
- Pregnancy test kit
Home pregnancy tests are a common example of biosensors. They are antibody-based and use antibodies to detect a hormone called hCG in a woman’s urine, indicating whether she is pregnant or not.
- Environmental biosensors
Engineered bacteria are used to monitor pollutants in the air, water, or oil and can quickly detect harmful substances, helping in the effective assessment of environmental quality.
- DNA biosensors
DNA biosensors are used to identify specific DNA sequences. They are important tools in genetic research and medical diagnostics to detect genetic mutations, pathogens, and foreign DNA. These biosensors can identify the DNA of disease-causing microorganisms, helping in the rapid diagnosis of infections. These biosensors help identify genetic mutations linked to conditions like cancer, allowing for personalized treatment plans. DNA biosensors also play a significant role in crime scene investigations by helping to identify suspects through DNA matching.
- Food safety
Biosensors are used in the food industry to ensure the safety and quality of products. They can quickly detect contaminants such as allergenic substances and harmful bacteria in food that might be harmful to consumers, ensuring it is safe to eat. Biosensors also help monitor the freshness and quality of food by detecting indicators of spoilage, like high levels of certain chemicals.
4. Biological computers
- Biological diagnostic tools
- Environmental sensors
- Drug delivery control
- Information encoding in DNA
- Synthetic biological circuits
Synthetic biology enables the creation of cellular networks that make decisions based on specific inputs. For example, cells could be engineered to respond to multiple signals and produce an output based on a combination of those inputs, mimicking decision-making processes.
5. Insulin production by engineered bacteria
Insulin can be synthesized by inserting the human insulin gene into bacteria (E.coli), providing a more cost-effective and efficient solution to meet its growing demand for diabetic patients worldwide. This process involves the modification of bacterial cells with a synthetic gene responsible for biosynthesizing human insulin, resulting in the production of recombinant insulin. Once cultured, the engineered bacteria start insulin production, mimicking the natural process in humans. The harvested insulin is purified and administered through injections to regulate blood sugar levels in diabetic patients. The engineered bacteria are cultivated in bioreactors that provide controlled environments for cell growth and insulin production. This facilitates efficient and scalable production. Engineered insulin can be produced in a precise way that optimizes insulin production, ensures high yield and better quality, and minimizes allergenic properties, benefiting patients who might be sensitive to conventional insulin sources.
6. Synthetic vaccines
Synthetic vaccines are an innovative combination of synthetic biology and immunology, paving the way for revolutionary advancements in disease prevention and treatment. Synthetic vaccines involve the design and creation of artificial versions of viruses or specific proteins using synthetic biology techniques. They closely mimic the structure and characteristics of pathogens, triggering immune responses without causing disease. The triggered immune responses are strong enough to induce the production of antibodies and memory cells crucial for future immunity. This approach accelerates vaccine development by avoiding the need to grow and handle live pathogens. Synthetic vaccines are significantly relevant for combating infectious diseases with high mutation rates, such as HIV and influenza, and addressing emerging pathogens. By utilizing the accuracy of synthetic biology, researchers can accelerate vaccine development and reduce the risks associated with traditional methods. Synthetic vaccines can contribute to more effective disease control strategies and ultimately help in shaping the landscape of global health protection.
7. Customized antibiotics
Customized antibiotics offer a promising solution to the problem of antibiotic resistance. Instead of one-size-fits-all antibiotics (traditional broad-spectrum antibiotics), scientists create antibiotics tailored to fight specific bacterial infections. They accomplish this by altering the DNA of these microorganisms to make them produce stronger antibiotics. This approach helps overcome the resistance that bacteria have developed against common antibiotics. Also, it allows for the creation of new antibiotics that bacteria haven’t encountered before. Customized antibiotics include engineered versions of antibiotics like vancomycin (tailored to combat drug-resistant bacteria such as MRSA), designer peptides (interfere with quorum sensing inhibitors in pathogens), streptomycin (aminoglycoside antibiotic), and Lantibiotics (peptide antibiotics designed to combat multidrug-resistant bacteria). Customized antibiotics are more precise in targeting harmful bacteria, which means fewer side effects. They can also be developed quickly to tackle the new emerging types of resistant bacteria. With the rising concerns of antibiotic-resistant infections, the use of synthetic biology to create customized antibiotics offers hope for better treatments. By focusing on precision and effectiveness, this approach could change the way we fight bacterial infections and help us stay ahead of evolving health threats.
8. Gene Therapy
Gene therapy aims toward engineering accurate and effective genetic modifications. It is one of the significant applications of synthetic biology that holds immense potential for treating genetic disorders and advancing personalized medicine. It involves modifying or replacing faulty genes within a patient’s DNA to correct genetic defects that cause diseases. Healthy copies of genes are introduced into cells using specially engineered-viruses as carriers. These viruses are modified to carry the desired genetic material without causing disease. Once inside the patient’s body, these modified viruses deliver the corrected genes to the targeted cells, aiming to restore proper function. This approach has the potential to treat a wide range of genetic disorders, from inherited conditions to certain types of cancer. By replacing or repairing faulty genes, gene therapy can offer long-lasting or even permanent solutions to untreatable diseases. Advancements in synthetic biology have enabled the development of safer and more efficient gene delivery methods. It also promises to minimize the risks associated with off-target effects or immune responses.
9. Artificial photosynthesis
Researchers are developing synthetic biological systems that mimic photosynthesis to convert sunlight, water, and CO2 into energy-rich molecules. This could revolutionize renewable energy production by creating sustainable fuel sources, addressing the global energy crisis, and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. In this process, light-absorbing molecules, photocatalysts, and other devices such as photoelectrochemical cells (PECs) are involved. PECs are used to capture sunlight and generate electrical power, while simultaneously storing it as chemical fuel like hydrogen or methane. These files can then be stored and utilized when needed to replace conventional fossil fuels, thereby providing a renewable and carbon-neutral alternative. By replicating nature’s efficiency in capturing sunlight, artificial photosynthesis promises various advantages such as a renewable and clean energy alternative, reducing reliance on fossil fuels, mitigating climate change by utilizing atmospheric CO2 as a raw material for energy production, generating fuels like hydrogen gas as a sustainable source of fuel for various industries, storing energy-rich molecules for future use, contributing to improved air and water quality by producing minimal pollutants in comparison to traditional energy sources, reducing the strain on finite resources by utilizing abundant resources, and synthesizing valuable chemicals and other materials.
10. Synthetic food
Synthetic food involves creating food products using engineered microorganisms, cells, or molecules. Scientists use synthetic biology techniques to modify microorganisms like bacteria or yeast in synthetic food production. These modified microorganisms can then be used to produce proteins, nutrients, or even entire food products through fermentation or other biotechnological processes. This approach aims to produce alternative sources of nutrition that can address challenges such as food security, sustainability, and resource efficiency. There are several benefits associated with synthetic food production. Synthetic food production requires fewer resources like land, water, and pesticides compared to traditional agriculture, contributing to reduced environmental impact. Synthetic food has the potential to provide a consistent food supply, regardless of climatic conditions or seasonal variations. By diversifying food sources beyond traditional farming, synthetic food production can reduce reliance on fragile agricultural ecosystems. Moreover, engineered microorganisms can convert raw materials into food with high efficiency, potentially minimizing food waste. Synthetic biology allows for the creation of foods suitable to specific nutritional requirements and also enables the production of ingredients that might be difficult to obtain through traditional agriculture, such as proteins from non-animal sources. Lab-grown meat is a notable example, where animal cells are cultured to create meat without traditional livestock farming. This approach reduces the environmental footprint associated with conventional meat production. Additionally, microorganisms like bacteria and yeast can be genetically engineered to synthesize alternative protein sources. These microorganisms efficiently convert raw materials into protein-rich foods, offering solutions for protein shortages and reducing the demand for resource-intensive livestock farming.
CRISPR/Cas9 is a revolutionary application of synthetic biology that enables accurate and targeted gene editing. This technology has transformed genetic research and has a wide range of applications, from creating genetically modified organisms to potentially treating genetic diseases in humans. CRISPR/Cas9 utilizes a synthetic RNA molecule (guide RNA) that is designed to match a specific DNA sequence within a gene of interest. The Cas9 enzyme acts like molecular scissors, guided by the RNA molecule, to cut the DNA at the desired location. This cut triggers the cell’s natural repair mechanisms, which can be harnessed to either disable, modify, or introduce new genetic material. CRISPR/Cas9 system has a significant impact on diverse fields, from healthcare to agriculture. Researchers use CRISPR/Cas9 to insert, delete, or alter specific genes in organisms. This enables the creation of organisms with desired traits, such as plants with improved resistance to pests, or crops with enhanced nutritional content. CRISPR/Cas9 holds great promise for treating genetic diseases by correcting or replacing faulty genes. In theory, this could lead to revolutionary therapies for conditions like sickle cell anaemia and cystic fibrosis.
12. Outer space exploration
Genetic engineering is one of the valuable tools in synthetic biology to create custom organisms or modify existing ones to perform specific tasks, making it a significant tool for ambitious projects like space exploration. NASA’s Space Synthetic Biology (SynBio) project tested an in-space nutrient production method in its BioNutrients experiment (2020). The application of synthetic biology in space exploration presents exciting possibilities for enhancing sustainability, resource utilization, and human survivability during long-duration missions. Synthetic biology can help design biological systems that recycle waste, generate oxygen, and produce food within closed environments like spacecraft or space habitats. Engineered microorganisms can convert carbon dioxide and waste into oxygen and nutrients through photosynthesis or other metabolic processes. In space, where resources are limited, synthetic biology can facilitate the biofabrication of materials like bioplastics or biofuels from renewable resources, reducing the need to transport materials from Earth. Genetic modification of organisms could also help develop natural shields against cosmic and solar radiation, protecting both astronauts and equipment during space travel. Engineered plants and microbes could be used to grow food and produce essential nutrients on long-duration missions, reducing the reliance on stored supplies and minimizing payload mass. Synthetic biology can contribute to bioremediation by cleaning up contaminants or pollutants in extraterrestrial environments and preparing them for future scientific research or even potential human colonization. Moreover, synthetic organisms could be designed to act as biosensors, detecting changes in the space environment or the presence of life-related chemicals, contributing to astrobiology research. These applications showcase the potential of synthetic biology to revolutionize space exploration, making missions more sustainable, self-sufficient, and capable of adapting to the challenges of extraterrestrial environments. As we venture further into space, synthetic biology’s role in enhancing our capabilities and understanding of the cosmos will undoubtedly become even more significant.
13. Engineered organoids & tissues
Organoids involve growing miniature, three-dimensional structures that mimic the structure and function of organs in the human body. These “mini-organs” are created by engineering stem cells to self-organize and differentiate into various cell types, closely replicating the complexity of real organs. An in-vitro pancreatic organoid was produced by Matrigel 3-D scaffolds in 2013. Synthetic biology techniques are employed to manipulate the genetic and biochemical processes that guide organoid cell development. By controlling these processes, scientists can direct the formation of specific tissues and structures within the organoids. This approach enables the study of organ development, disease mechanisms, and drug responses in a controlled environment. The benefits of organoids as an application of synthetic biology are surplus. Organoids can be engineered to mimic specific diseases, allowing researchers to study disease progression, test potential treatments, and understand underlying mechanisms. Organoids offer a more accurate platform for drug testing, providing insights into drug efficacy, toxicity, and side effects before clinical trials. Organoids can be created from a patient’s own cells, enabling personalized medicine approaches and tailoring treatments to individual patients. Organoids can also reduce the need for animal testing and instead offer a more ethically sound platform for studying human biology and diseases.
14. Bioluminescent plants
Bioluminescent plants are living plants that are specifically engineered to emit a mesmerizing light akin to that found in fireflies and other luminescent organisms. This novel concept involves the insertion of light-producing genes from bioluminescent creatures into the plant’s genetic makeup, resulting in enchanting foliage that glows in the dark. Beyond their aesthetic appeal, bioluminescent plants serve as more than just ornamental additions. They can act as environmentally responsive indicators, illuminating in reaction to specific conditions or pollutants. For instance, researchers have engineered plants to emit light when exposed to certain chemicals, showcasing potential in pollution monitoring. Moreover, the synthesis of bioluminescent plants finds its place in science communication and education, sparking interest in genetic modification and synthetic biology principles. These luminous creations even extend into artistic realms, offering unique and living displays that respond to their surroundings.
15. Metabolic engineering
Metabolic engineering involves recreating and optimizing the metabolic pathways within organisms to enhance their ability to produce specific compounds. These compounds could range from biofuels and pharmaceuticals to industrial chemicals and agricultural products. Through genetic manipulation and synthetic biology techniques, scientists modify the genetic code of microorganisms or plants to enable them to efficiently produce desired molecules. This process often includes introducing new genes, modifying existing ones, or altering regulatory mechanisms to redirect the flow of cellular processes. Metabolic engineering combines biology, chemistry, and engineering principles to harness the full potential of cellular factories. It enables the creation of microorganisms that act as efficient biofactories, producing valuable products with minimal waste. This approach has the potential to revolutionize industries by providing sustainable alternatives to traditional chemical synthesis methods and reducing the dependence on non-renewable resources. Bacteria and fungi serve as ideal model organisms for metabolic engineering. Yeast has been engineered to produce bioethanol as a greener alternative to fossil fuels, while bacteria like Escherichia coli have been manipulated to manufacture insulin for diabetes treatment. Another example involves the modification of plants like tobacco to produce high-value molecules used in vaccine production.
From insulin-producing bacteria to plants that glow in the dark, the examples mentioned above stand as impressive illustrations of the integration between science and creativity. These real-life synthetic biology examples unveil a spectrum of possibilities, showing us how science can solve global problems, advance medicine, and pioneer eco-friendly technologies. As we witness these innovations, we’re reminded of the ongoing impact that synthetic biology has on shaping our future, one creative application at a time.