Synthetic biology’s role in fighting COVID-19

Introduction

Synthetic biology, the name itself seems to have four to five or additional answers, in less complicated terms synthetic biology is an engineering approach to biology. The goal is to make and use tools that enable us to design and build functions in cells. It’s a multi-disciplinary space of research that uses a combination of biology, engineering, genetics, chemistry, and computer science to change the structure and performance of microorganisms. Synthetic biology has several applications starting from drug and vaccine development, applications in food and agriculture, manufacturing, and diagnostic tests. Nowadays instead of cut and paste, just type your DNA sequence into a computer, or copy it from a database or perhaps choose it from a growing component catalog, and so you just order it over the web. Yes really, The DNA sequence is also copied from nature however the DNA itself is created by machine. It’s synthetic. 

Background

Jay Keasling, the world renowned bioengineer and his team have rebuild a metabolic pathway in yeast by assembling ten genes from three organisms in a shot to produce synthetically the antimalarial drug artemisinin and to try to do it cheaply to treat up to 200 million malaria sufferers annually.

Biotechnology pioneer Craig Venter has gone even further. His team has entirely replaced the DNA of the bacterium with a synthetic copy of DNA from another naturally occurring species. This wasn’t creating life, but it absolutely was testing just how reprogrammable a bacterial cell can be, a vital step if we want biological factories which can be tasked to create several things like a vaccine, medicine, food, and even fuel. 

Developments

In the fight against the current pandemic, scientists are turning to synthetic biology to hurry up the development of a vaccine. In the drug discovery pipeline, there are many areas where the speed and accuracy of the latest synthetic biology tools are creating a measurable distinction within the ability to accelerate drug development while at the same time reducing expenses. The broad advantage of synthetic biology in drug discovery will be illustrated with a recent example: the development of vaccines for the COVID-19 pandemic. 

(Image source: shutterstock.com)

Synthetic biology addresses the requirement by empowering drug discovery scientists to synthesize DNA fragments, clones, or entire variant libraries. Precisely elect optimization steps and automated systems currently permit a virtually hands-free production of constructs and cloning into vectors. In one recent example, researchers turned to an automated platform for rapid DNA synthesis to come up with many vaccine candidates for the SARS-CoV-2 virus abundantly faster than is usually potential. One key use of synthetic biology in the pandemic has been the development of cell-free systems that permit scientists to activate and analyze biological machinery, while not the contradictory variables introduced by a live cell system. Advanced synthesis techniques build this approach possible: they have opened the way to new prospects for manipulating systems within the interest of higher understanding biology and discovering vital new drug targets.

While synthetic biology has been out there throughout previous outbreaks and was even used to facilitate develop vaccines ultimately stockpiled for the H7N9 avian flu outbreak that fortunately never turned into a pandemic. Recent advances in automation were available just in time for the emergence of SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19. Even within the time period of this pandemic, scientists were able to take the genome assemblies produced for SARS-CoV-2 and use those sequences to make genomic constructs for vaccine candidates. A research team at the University of Washington used an automated synthetic biology platform to make potential vaccines. The time-frame from the launch of the project to preclinical testing those candidates in mice was an astonishing period. With that quite speed through this technology, clinical research teams might even take into account developing region-specific vaccines that may enable them to respond to localized mutations. This approach is equally effective for vaccines using RNA, DNA, live attenuated virus, or viral vectors.

Some corporations are attempting to use synthetic biology to produce vaccines. CRISPR technology is currently getting used for a few of the various COVID-19 tests that are available. This is still in the very early stages of being thought through and isn't ready for research laboratory tests. There's no set up on the way to get the synthetic "CRISPR-based system" into the right human cells that are infected with SARS-CoV-2. It conjointly remains entirely unknown if this CRISPR-based system would actually exterminate the SARS-CoV-2 or fail to try and do so. At the same time that some scientist believes it'll be helpful; the University of Cambridge is warning that synthetic biology may be used to create bioweapons that "target people in a specific group based on their DNA."

Pharmaceutical vaccines against Covid-19 are rushing toward human testing. Some companies’ experimental vaccines contain synthetic strands of RNA or DNA that code for protein molecules on the virus’s surface. Once the vaccine delivers the genetic material into cells, the cells follow the genetic directions to churn out the infective agent i.e. viral protein. The concept is that the body would see that as foreign, generates antibodies to it, and if all goes well thereby acquire immunity to the virus. However, safety tests of mRNA vaccines have turned up adverse events and it’s not clear how potent they’ll be.  

Conclusion

With all due respect to nature, synthetic biologists believe they will do higher by using computers, they're coming up with new, self-assembling protein nanoparticles studded with viral proteins, referred to as antigens: these particles would be the heart of a vaccine. If tests in lab animals of the first such nanoparticle vaccine are any indication, it ought to be more potent than either old-style viral vaccines. 

References

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3580775/

https://www.cell.com/cell/comments/S0092-8674(16)30070-8

https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/04/190401171343.htm

https://quakerservice.ca/our-work/peace/synthetic-biology/

https://www.ginkgobioworks.com/2020/03/22/synthetic-biology-and-beyond-community-response-to-covid-19/

https://cen.acs.org/analytical-chemistry/diagnostics/COVID-19-diagnostic-uses-CRISPR/98/web/2020/05

https://cen.acs.org/pharmaceuticals/vaccines/coronavirus-help-mRNA-DNA-vaccines/98/i14

https://www.cdc.gov/flu/avianflu/h7n9-virus.htm


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