"Working at the crossroads of biology and engineering, synthetic biologists are crafting genes, proteins, and organisms that evolution never came up with. They are creating bacteria that produce biofuels and yeast cells that manufacture medicines. They are swapping promoters, ribosome-binding sequences, and open reading frames as if they were Lego bricks.
“We are no longer constrained by what Mother Nature gives us,” says Claes Gustafsson, cofounder of the DNA synthesis company DNA2.0, in Menlo Park, California.
Now, the constraint is the toolkit. Traditional biologists can work with DNA sequences using a simple viewer or editor, but “the engineers need a whole new suite of tools,” says Natalie Kuldell, who teaches biological engineering at MIT.
The synthetic biologist’s mind-set is all about parts, those nucleic acid bricks they shuffle to design a desired gene or gene network. Previously, researchers dealt with plain-text sequences, in word-processing or spreadsheet files. Copying and pasting, “it’s very easy to make mistakes,” says Avi Robinson-Mosher, a postdoc who designs cancer drugs at Harvard’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering. Synthetic biologists need computer-aided design tools akin to those used by other kinds of engineers.
Fortunately, many synthetic biologists have backgrounds in computers and engineering, and are developing software of their own. Some programs make drawing up the plans for a new plasmid so effortless that high school students and untrained bio-hobbyists can do it. Others include simulators so researchers can predict how a new genetic circuit will work. Several are open-source, so computer-savvy biologists can customize them.