The International Genetically Engineered Machine competition (iGEM) is the preeminent, multinational, undergraduate synthetic biology competition that takes place each year. The competition focuses on engineering aspects of synthetic biology as a foundation to develop research skills and foster collaboration among student participants. The duration of the competition is fairly short, with most of the work occurring over the summer months, when most students take time off from their studies. It is truly impressive the types of relevant world issues for which the teams are able to address and test solution in such a short time.
On a cold weekend last month, more than two thousand undergraduate scientists took over two levels of Boston’s Hynes Convention Center. Some wore full-body banana costumes, many wore coördinated team sweatshirts, and all appeared sleep-deprived. A handful of professors, one of whom was dressed as a stuffed olive, wandered among the students, and members of the F.B.I.’s Biological Countermeasures Unit handed out “BACTERIA OF INTEREST” trading cards—the microbial equivalent of the deck that the Pentagon created, in 2003, of Saddam Hussein and his loyalists.
Life on Earth depends on catalysis. Chemical transformations essential for cellular function are too sluggish to happen spontaneously at ambient temperatures and pressures, thus nature has developed myriad catalysts (enzymes) that accelerate the many key reactions necessary for life. Today, proteins are largely responsible for this role, although nucleic acids (RNA and DNA), in addition to their familiar role in storage and propagation of genetic information, can also form enzymes: the ribosome, the molecular machine that manufactures proteins within all cells is an RNA enzyme. Indeed, life is widely thought to have begun with the emergence of a self-copying RNA catalyst; the origin of life itself depends on the emergence and evolution of catalysis.
Synthetic biologists often work with circular chromosomes to engineer genetic material because they’re stable and easy to manipulate, but they don’t resemble the natural shape of chromosomes in eukaryotes. Reporting in PNAS this week (November 5), Jef Boeke of NYU Langone Medical Center and postdoc Leslie Mitchell designed a tool, which they dubbed the telomerator, that straightens circular yeast chromosomes and adds telomeres to either end.
NYU Langone yeast geneticists report they have developed a novel tool -- dubbed "the telomerator" -- that could redefine the limits of synthetic biology and advance how successfully living things can be engineered or constructed in the laboratory based on an organism's genetic, chemical base-pair structure.
Among the Maker Movement, there are those that deal with more exotic materials and craft. Who are they? They’re the biohackers, designing and altering the essence of life itself. Silicon, plastic and metals are just some of the materials makers use. But what about the more exotic? Some Makers code with carbon. More specifically, with DNA, most ancient and elegant of codes.
The BioFabricate summit in New York rearranged my thinking. BioFabricate was about the intersection of manufacturing and biology: not just “we can make cool new microbes,” but using biology to manufacture products for the real world. Biological products have always seemed far off. But they’re not: the revolution in biology is clearly here now, just unevenly distributed.
This paper demonstrates the significant utility of deploying non-traditional biological techniques to harness available volatiles and waste resources on manned missions to explore the Moon and Mars. Compared with anticipated non-biological approaches, it is determined that for 916 day Martian missions: 205 days of high-quality methane and oxygen Mars bioproduction withMethanobacterium thermoautotrophicum can reduce the mass of a Martian fuel-manufacture plant by 56%; 496 days of biomass generation with Arthrospira platensis and Arthrospira maxima on Mars can decrease the shipped wet-food mixed-menu mass for a Mars stay and a one-way voyage by 38%; 202 days of Mars polyhydroxybutyrate synthesis with Cupriavidus necator can lower the shipped mass to three-dimensional print a 120 m3 six-person habitat by 85% and a few days of acetaminophen production with engineered Synechocystis sp. PCC 6803 can completely replenish expired or irradiated stocks of the pharmaceutical, thereby providing independence from unmanned resupply spacecraft that take up to 210 days to arrive. Analogous outcomes are included for lunar missions. Because of the benign assumptions involved, the results provide a glimpse of the intriguing potential of ‘space synthetic biology’, and help focus related efforts for immediate, near-term impact.
Paper-based diagnostics such as pregnancy tests have been around for a while, but over the past few years researchers have been working to answer more complex biological questions. Now, synthetic biologists have developed portable, inexpensive, and accurate paper-based tests that could one day serve as diagnostics for Ebola and other diseases.
Synthetic biology is principally concerned with the rational design and engineering of biologically based parts, devices or systems. However, biological systems are generally complex and unpredictable and are therefore intrinsically difficult to engineer. In order to address these fundamental challenges, synthetic biology is aiming to unify a ‘body of knowledge’ from several foundational scientific fields, within the context of a set of engineering principles. This shift in perspective is enabling synthetic biologists to address complexity, such that robust biological systems can be designed, assembled and tested as part of a biological design cycle. The design cycle takes a forward-design approach in which a biological system is specified, modeled, analyzed, assembled and its functionality tested. At each stage of the design cycle an expanding repertoire of tools is being developed. In this review we highlight several of these tools in terms of their applications and benefits to the synthetic biology community.
Can synthetic biology help improve manned space missions to the Moon and Mars? Space missions are expensive and technologies for aerospace travel are continuously evaluated for cost, relevance and safety. We chatted to Dr Amor Menezes and colleagues about their recent Review article – published in Journal of the Royal Society Interface – which looks at how current biological techniques and future progress in synthetic biology can improve existing and develop new technology for efficient space travel.
Canada’s research and business communities have an opportunity to become world leaders in a burgeoning field that is fast shaping how we deal with everything from climate change to global food security and the production of lifesaving medications. The science of synthetic biology has the transformative capacity to equip us with novel technology tools and products to build a more sustainable society, while creating new business and employment opportunities for the economy of tomorrow.