As synthetic biology moves away from trial and error and embraces more formal processes, workflows have emerged that cover the roadmap from conceptualization of a genetic device to its construction and measurement. This latter aspect (i.e., characterization and measurement of synthetic genetic constructs) has received relatively little attention to date, but it is crucial for their outcome. An end-to-end use case for engineering a simple synthetic device is presented, which is supported by information standards and computational methods and focuses on such characterization/measurement. This workflow captures the main stages of genetic device design and description and offers standardized tools for both population-based measurement and single-cell analysis. To this end, three separate aspects are addressed. First, the specific vector features are discussed. Although device/circuit design has been successfully automated, important structural information is usually overlooked, as in the case of plasmid vectors. The use of the Standard European Vector Architecture (SEVA) is advocated for selecting the optimal carrier of a design and its thorough description in order to unequivocally correlate digital definitions and molecular devices. A digital version of this plasmid format was developed with the Synthetic Biology Open Language (SBOL) along with a software tool that allows users to embed genetic parts in vector cargoes. This enables annotation of a mathematical model of the device’s kinetic reactions formatted with the Systems Biology Markup Language (SBML). From that point onward, the experimental results and their in silico counterparts proceed alongside, with constant feedback to preserve consistency between them. A second aspect involves a framework for the calibration of fluorescence-based measurements. One of the most challenging endeavors in standardization, metrology, is tackled by reinterpreting the experimental output in light of simulation results, allowing us to turn arbitrary fluorescence units into relative measurements. Finally, integration of single-cell methods into a framework for multicellular simulation and measurement is addressed, allowing standardized inspection of the interplay between the carrier chassis and the culture conditions.
The aim of this paper is to propose that current robotic technologies cannot have intentional states any more than is feasible within the sensorimotor variant of embodied cognition. It argues that anticipation is an emerging concept that can provide a bridge between both the deepest philosophical theories about the nature of life and cognition and the empirical biological and cognitive sciences steeped in reductionist and Newtonian conceptions of causality. The paper advocates that in order to move forward, cognitive robotics needs to embrace new platforms and a conceptual framework that will enable it to pursue, in a meaningful way, questions about autonomy and purposeful behaviour. We suggest that hybrid systems, part robotic and part cultures of neurones, offer experimental platforms where different dimensions of enactivism (sensorimotor, constitutive foundations of biological autonomy, including anticipation), and their relative contributions to cognition, can be investigated in an integrated way. A careful progression, mindful to the deep philosophical concerns but also respecting empirical evidence, will ultimately lead towards unifying theoretical and empirical biological sciences and may offer advancement where reductionist sciences have been so far faltering.
Our capabilities for systematic design and engineering of biological systems are rapidly increasing. Effectively engineering such systems, however, requires the synthesis of a rapidly expanding and changing complex body of knowledge, protocols, and methodologies. Many of the problems in managing this complexity, however, appear susceptible to being addressed by artificial intelligence (AI) techniques, i.e., methods enabling computers to represent, acquire, and employ knowledge. Such methods can be employed to automate physical and informational "routine" work and thus better allow humans to focus their attention on the deeper scientific and engineering issues. This paper examines the potential impact of AI on the engineering of biological organisms through the lens of a typical organism engineering workflow. We identify a number of key opportunities for significant impact, as well as challenges that must be overcome.
Synthetic biology combines different branches of biology and engineering aimed at designing synthetic biological circuits able to replicate emergent properties useful for the biotechnology industry, human health and environment. The role of negative feedback in noise propagation for a basic enzymatic reaction scheme is investigated. Two feedback control schemes on enzyme expression are considered: one from the final product of the pathway activity, the other from the enzyme accumulation. Both schemes are designed to provide the same steady-state average values of the involved players, in order to evaluate the feedback performances according to the same working mode. Computations are carried out numerically and analytically, the latter allowing to infer information on which model parameter setting leads to a more efficient noise attenuation, according to the chosen scheme. In addition to highlighting the role of the feedback in providing a substantial noise reduction, our investigation concludes that the effect of feedback is enhanced by increasing the promoter sensitivity for both schemes. A further interesting biological insight is that an increase in the promoter sensitivity provides more benefits to the feedback from the product with respect to the feedback from the enzyme, in terms of enlarging the parameter design space.
Cell-free biosynthesis in the form of in vitro multi-enzyme reaction networks or enzyme cascade reactions emerges as a promising tool to carry out complex catalysis in one-step, one-vessel settings. It combines the advantages of well-established in vitro biocatalysis with the power of multi-step in vivo pathways. Such cascades have been successfully applied to the synthesis of fine and bulk chemicals, monomers and complex polymers of chemical importance, and energy molecules from renewable resources as well as electricity. The scale of these initial attempts remains small, suggesting that more robust control of such systems and more efficient optimization are currently major bottlenecks. To this end, the very nature of enzyme cascade reactions as multi-membered systems requires novel approaches for implementation and optimization, some of which can be obtained from in vivo disciplines (such as pathway refactoring and DNA assembly), and some of which can be built on the unique, cell-free properties of cascade reactions (such as easy analytical access to all system intermediates to facilitate modeling).
The design and implementation of regulation motifs ensuring robust perfect adaptation are challenging problems in synthetic biology. Indeed, the design of high-yield robust metabolic pathways producing, for instance, drug precursors and biofuels, could be easily imagined to rely on such a control strategy in order to optimize production levels and reduce production costs, despite the presence of environmental disturbance and model uncertainty. We propose here a motif that ensures tracking and robust perfect adaptation for the controlled reaction network through integral feedback. Its metabolic load on the host is fully tunable and can be made arbitrarily close to the constitutive limit, the universal minimal metabolic load of all possible controllers. A DNA implementation of the controller network is finally provided. Computer simulations using realistic parameters demonstrate the good agreement between the DNA implementation and the ideal controller dynamics.
One aim of synthetic biologists is to create novel and predictable biological systems from simpler modular parts. This approach is currently hampered by a lack of well-defined and characterized parts and devices. However, there is a wealth of existing biological information, which can be used to identify and characterize biological parts, and their design constraints in the literature and numerous biological databases. However, this information is spread among these databases in many different formats. New computational approaches are required to make this information available in an integrated format that is more amenable to data mining. A tried and tested approach to this problem is to map disparate data sources into a single data set, with common syntax and semantics, to produce a data warehouse or knowledge base. Ontologies have been used extensively in the life sciences, providing this common syntax and semantics as a model for a given biological domain, in a fashion that is amenable to computational analysis and reasoning. Here, we present an ontology for applications in synthetic biology design, SyBiOnt, which facilitates the modeling of information about biological parts and their relationships. SyBiOnt was used to create the SyBiOntKB knowledge base, incorporating and building upon existing life sciences ontologies and standards. The reasoning capabilities of ontologies were then applied to automate the mining of biological parts from this knowledge base. We propose that this approach will be useful to speed up synthetic biology design and ultimately help facilitate the automation of the biological engineering life cycle.
Detection of chemical signals is critical for cells in nature as well as in synthetic biology, where they serve as inputs for designer circuits. Important progress has been made in the design of signal processing circuits triggering complex biological behaviors, but the range of small molecules recognized by sensors as inputs is limited. The ability to detect new molecules will increase the number of synthetic biology applications, but direct engineering of tailor-made sensors takes time. Here we describe a way to immediately expand the range of biologically detectable molecules by systematically designing metabolic pathways that transform nondetectable molecules into molecules for which sensors already exist. We leveraged computer-aided design to predict such sensing-enabling metabolic pathways, and we built several new whole-cell biosensors for molecules such as cocaine, parathion, hippuric acid, and nitroglycerin.
Synthetic biology is a research field that has grown rapidly and attracted considerable attention. Most prominently, it has been labelled the ‘engineering of biology’. While other attempts to label the field have been also pursued, the program of engineering can be considered the core of the field’s disciplinary program, of its identity. This article addresses the success of the ‘engineering program’ in synthetic biology and argues that its success can partly be explained by distinct practices of persuasion that aim at persuading scientific, but also non-scientific audiences. The article explores two different modes of persuasion:, building tools as heuristic models and posing visionary claims. Objects such as the toggle switch or the synthetic oscillator in synthetic biology can more adequately be described as heuristic models of engineering instead of simply as prototypes of ‘tools’. Posing visionary claims can be also understood as a persuasion practice, since the claims are used to construct the societal relevance of the field. Drawing upon Michel Callon’s ‘sociology of translation’, I argue that both practices of persuasion aim at ‘enrolling’ entities into the disciplinary identity. The article is based on the textual analysis of rhetorical practices in three synthetic biology review articles which are considered seminal for the history of the field.
Dynamic control of gene expression can have far-reaching implications for biotechnological applications and biological discovery. Thanks to the advantages of light, optogenetics has emerged as an ideal technology for this task. Current state-of-the-art methods for optical expression control fail to combine precision with repeatability and cannot withstand changing operating culture conditions. Here, we present a novel fully automatic experimental platform for the robust and precise long-term optogenetic regulation of protein production in liquid Escherichia coli cultures. Using a computer-controlled light-responsive two-component system, we accurately track prescribed dynamic green fluorescent protein expression profiles through the application of feedback control, and show that the system adapts to global perturbations such as nutrient and temperature changes. We demonstrate the efficacy and potential utility of our approach by placing a key metabolic enzyme under optogenetic control, thus enabling dynamic regulation of the culture growth rate with potential applications in bacterial physiology studies and biotechnology.
While we’ve gotten used to CRISPR-Cas9 blanketing the science news and even inspiring #CRISPRfacts, now we’re getting CRISPR in our mainstream TV shows. The new Marvel Netflix show, Luke Cage, used CRISPR genome editing to explain Carl Lucas’ transformation into superhero Luke Cage.
Artificial intelligence can make numerous contributions to synthetic biology. I would like to suggest three that are related to the past, present and future of artificial intelligence. From the past, works in biology and artificial systems by Turing and von Neumann prove highly interesting to explore within the new framework of synthetic biology, especially with regard to the notions of self-modification and self-replication and their links to emergence and the bottom-up approach. The current epistemological inquiry into emergence and research on swarm intelligence, superorganisms and biologically inspired cognitive architecture may lead to new achievements on the possibilities of synthetic biology in explaining cognitive processes. Finally, the present-day discussion on the future of artificial intelligence and the rise of superintelligence may point to some research trends for the future of synthetic biology and help to better define the boundary of notions such as "life", "cognition", "artificial" and "natural", as well as their interconnections in theoretical synthetic biology.
The idea of storing digital data in DNA seems like science fiction. At first glance, it might not seem obvious that a molecule can store data. The term “data storage” conjures up images of physical artifacts like CDs and ..
Modification of natural product backbones is a proven strategy for the development of clinically useful antibiotics. Such modifications have traditionally been achieved through medicinal chemistry strategies or via in vitro enzymatic activities. In an orthogonal approach, engineering of biosynthetic pathways using synthetic biology techniques can generate chemical diversity. Here we report the use of a minimal teicoplanin class glycopeptide antibiotic (GPA) scaffold expressed in a production-optimized Streptomyces coelicolor strain to expand GPA chemical diversity. Thirteen scaffold-modifying enzymes from 7 GPA biosynthetic gene clusters in different combinations were introduced into S. coelicolor, enabling us to explore the criteria for in-cell GPA modification. These include identifying specific isozymes that tolerate the unnatural GPA scaffold and modifications that prevent or allow further elaboration by other enzymes. Overall, 15 molecules were detected, 9 of which have not been reported previously. Some of these compounds showed activity against GPA-resistant bacteria. This system allows us to observe the complex interplay between substrates and both non-native and native tailoring enzymes in a cell-based system and establishes rules for GPA synthetic biology and subsequent expansion of GPA chemical diversity.
Because the complexity of metabolism cannot be intuitively understood or analyzed, computational methods are indispensable for studying biochemistry and deepening our understanding of cellular metabolism to promote new discoveries. We used the computational framework BNICE.ch along with cheminformatic tools to assemble the whole theoretical reactome from the known metabolome through expansion of the known biochemistry presented in the Kyoto Encyclopedia of Genes and Genomes (KEGG) database. We constructed the ATLAS of Biochemistry, a database of all theoretical biochemical reactions based on known biochemical principles and compounds. ATLAS includes more than 130 000 hypothetical enzymatic reactions that connect two or more KEGG metabolites through novel enzymatic reactions that have never been reported to occur in living organisms. Moreover, ATLAS reactions integrate 42% of KEGG metabolites that are not currently present in any KEGG reaction into one or more novel enzymatic reactions. The generated repository of information is organized in a Web-based database ( http://lcsb-databases.epfl.ch/atlas/ ) that allows the user to search for all possible routes from any substrate compound to any product. The resulting pathways involve known and novel enzymatic steps that may indicate unidentified enzymatic activities and provide potential targets for protein engineering. Our approach of introducing novel biochemistry into pathway design and associated databases will be important for synthetic biology and metabolic engineering.
Feedback loops in biological networks, among others, enable differentiation and cell cycle progression, and increase robustness in signal transduction. In natural networks, feedback loops are often complex and intertwined, making it challenging to identify which loops are mainly responsible for an observed behavior. However, minimal synthetic replicas could allow for such identification. Here, we engineered a synthetic permease-inducer-repressor system in Saccharomyces cerevisiae to analyze if a transport-mediated positive feedback loop could be a core mechanism for the switch-like behavior in the regulation of metabolic gene networks such as the S. cerevisiae GAL system or the Escherichia coli lac operon. We characterized the synthetic circuit using deterministic and stochastic mathematical models. Similar to its natural counterparts, our synthetic system shows bistable and hysteretic behavior, and the inducer concentration range for bistability as well as the switching rates between the two stable states depend on the repressor concentration. Our results indicate that a generic permease-inducer-repressor circuit with a single feedback loop is sufficient to explain the experimentally observed bistable behavior of the natural systems. We anticipate that the approach of reimplementing natural systems with orthogonal parts to identify crucial network components is applicable to other natural systems such as signaling pathways.
The enabling technologies of synthetic biology are opening up new opportunities for engineering and enhancement of mammalian cells. This will stimulate diverse applications in many life science sectors such as regenerative medicine, development of biosensing cell lines, therapeutic protein production, and generation of new synthetic genetic regulatory circuits. Harnessing the full potential of these new engineering-based approaches requires the design and assembly of large DNA constructs-potentially up to chromosome scale-and the effective delivery of these large DNA payloads to the host cell. Random integration of large transgenes, encoding therapeutic proteins or genetic circuits into host chromosomes, has several drawbacks such as risks of insertional mutagenesis, lack of control over transgene copy-number and position-specific effects; these can compromise the intended functioning of genetic circuits. The development of a system orthogonal to the endogenous genome is therefore beneficial. Mammalian artificial chromosomes (MACs) are functional, add-on chromosomal elements, which behave as normal chromosomes-being replicating and portioned to daughter cells at each cell division. They are deployed as useful gene expression vectors as they remain independent from the host genome. MACs are maintained as a single-copy and can accommodate multiple gene expression cassettes of, in theory, unlimited DNA size (MACs up to 10 megabases have been constructed). MACs therefore enabled control over ectopic gene expression and represent an excellent platform to rapidly prototype and characterize novel synthetic gene circuits without recourse to engineering the host genome. This review describes the obstacles synthetic biologists face when working with mammalian systems and how the development of improved MACs can overcome these-particularly given the spectacular advances in DNA synthesis and assembly that are fuelling this research area.
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