An insight into the future of synthetic biology

How about engineering biology? More than half a century ago, scientists asked themselves the same question. In the 1950’s, biological systems were explored for several industrial applications, and natural catalysts started to be considered over traditional chemical ones. However, the potential of biological systems could not be entirely explored if it couldn’t be modified and optimized. With this in mind, the re-design and creation of new biological parts and systems became a common scientific goal. On the 1990’s, synthetic biology arose as the multidisciplinary engineering field for reaching this goal, and it hasn’t stopped to grow since then.

Over the last two decades, the synthetic biology field has built up an independent position as a groundbreaking and highly promising technology. On this journey, three distinct periods have been identified: foundation, expansion, and a “final” accelerated innovation phase, where practical applications started to rise out of the field (Cameron et al., 2014). 

For the 2030, the United Nations envisioned 17 sustainable development goals to transform the world (UN, 2015) (Fig 1). Furthermore, as we all know by now, The World Health Organization (WHO) declaration of COVID-19 as a pandemic earlier this year has also revealed even more urgent objectives to discourse (WHO, 2020). The versatility of the synthetic biology community, both the industrial and academic one, has actively sought clever solutions for tackling numerous of reported challenges on reaching these goals. From healthcare, to biodiversity conservation, and environmental sustainability, we hereby discuss some perspectives on the synthetic biology present and future on some of the mentioned areas. 

Figure 1 The United Nations identified 17 sustainable development goals for the coming future (UN, 2015)

Healthcare and smart biotherapeutics

Bottlenecks on disease mechanisms, detection, prevention, and treatments are currently being tackled by the synthetic biology community. The current cutting-edge technologies for rapid DNA synthesis can promptly respond to an emergency on the healthcare field. Synthetic parts or even complete synthetic genomes of viruses can now be produced in a high speed and large scale level, such that scientists can better study the disease. The recent outbreak of COVID-19 is a clear example on this matter. The gene synthesis market has worked vastly on synthesizing DNA sequences encoding the main spike glycoprotein, or even creating synthetic versions of the virus (MIT Technology Review, 2020). With this facilities, a faster release of cutting-edge scientific research (WHO, 2020) has led to the development of better detection, treatments, and soon, vaccines. Additionally, leading synthetic biology companies, such as Ginkgo Bioworks, are now being strongly supported by several foundation (EPRS, 2020). The vote of confidence focuses on the innovative synthetic biology technologies for building robust testing platforms and vaccines with a predicted production of up to a billion of doses in a short time period. 

Likewise, the synthetic biology community is also building a solid ground on smarter treatments and cure strategies for a wider range of diseases. For instance, companies such as CHAIN or Prokarium offer targeted drug delivery into the gut using engineered bacterial strains for treating inflammatory bowel diseases, or cancer. Another example of cutting-edge technologies for smart biotherapies was recently published by George Church and his research group at the Wyss Institute at Harvard. The study validates a machine-learning guided engineering approach for AAV viral capsids (Ogden et al., 2019), useful for future targeted gene therapies, and for future implementation of machine learning as an engineering accelerator tool. The increase demand of synthetic biology technologies, including all the already mentioned examples clearly demonstrates that healthcare improvement is and will be for long a constant goal of the field. 

From sustainable production to biodiversity conservation

On front of the clear environmental devastation, synthetic biology stands strong as one of the promising fields that could offer long lasting solutions: sustainability as the main goal. Companies as LanzaTech or Impossible Foods have noticeably included this goal into their mission. On the former, engineered microorganisms are used for converting carbon waste into bioethanol, which strongly reduces carbon emissions on the road. On the latter, plant-based meat alternative supplemented with the heme group aims to tackle down the carbon footprint of the food industry, which currently corresponds to almost 30% of a household total (University of Michigan, 2019). 

Moreover, the current crisis on biodiversity conservation has also draw the attention of the synthetic biology community. One example of this was reported earlier this year, where a synthetic biology study reported an approach to tackle the current concerning decrease of US honey bees. The study engineers the bacterial gut microbiome on bees for destroying mits, one of their most common pathogen (Leonard et al., 2020). Finally, even though life has intrinsically adapted to earth changes over billions of years, it plainly cannot keep up with the speeded changing pace that we currently impose. The reported examples clearly display how the synthetic biology community is aiming to slow it down with a clear vision on sustainability as the driving force. 

Finally, having mentioned some examples on the current situation of the synthetic biology field, it is clear how the idea of its future is tightly tight with the emerging challenges and long term sustainable goals of our world. Furthermore, the examples mentioned also demonstrate the strong potential of the field for building a better future in a wide range of needed areas. With all this in mind, it is your turn to wonder, what are your insights into the future of synthetic biology?


Ten technologies to fight coronavirus”, European Parlament (EPRS), 2020


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