Synthetic Biology

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“Since the dawn of civilization, humans have been builders and engineers, constructing houses from bricks, machines from metals and now genomes from nucleotides.” (Wang 2010)

Concepts and Developments

Minimal Cell

  • The concept of a minimal cell is significant because it provides the means to facilitate the interaction of biological parts. The minimal cell is a theoretical cell that contains only the vital components of a genome to maintain viability (Young and Alper 2009).
  • This has been sought via the “top down approach,” which is the systematic removal of genes from a living bacterium to determine the minimal viable genome (Benner and Sismour 2005).
  • The purpose of the minimal cell is to create a ‘chassis’ to insert biological parts, into a single integrated system, without interference from other cellular processes (Calvert 2010; Zhang et al. 2010).
  • A successful minimal cell will permit the insertion of novel biological parts, with functions that are not found in nature, and operate consistently and predictably (Zhang et al. 2010). Thus, the discovery of a feasible minimal cell is crucial for the application of biological parts into an integrated system.

The synthetically produced myocoplasma mycoides cell

Craig Venter’s Announcement (May 21, 2010)
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  • The creation of the first living and reproducing organism with a chemically synthesized genome is significant because it demonstrates the feasibility of synthetic genome generation and application.
  • This was accomplished by a team of researchers at the J. Craig Venter Institute.
  • By employing a DNA synthesizer to convert digital information into a physical gene sequence, the team was able to construct the genome of myocoplasma mycoides and insert this genome into a genome-less myocoplasma capricolum cell (Gibson et al. 2010; Hsu 2010a).
  • The modified cell subsequently exhibited cell replication. The report states that the synthetic genome is only slightly modified from the naturally occurring myocoplasma mycoides genome, and thus it is clear that no novel “biological parts” were created as part of this project.
  • However, Daniel Gibson, the primary researcher, states that this project does demonstrate that genomes of cells are able to be designed on a computer, as the “the cell’s lineage is the computer, it’s not any other genetic code,” (qtd. in Fox 2010).
  • The JCVI has partnered with Novartis to apply the technology of synthetic biology to the manufacture of flu vaccines (J. Craig Venter Institute 2010).
  • However, despite this achievement, for synthetic biology to achieve its full potential, researchers must be able to design organisms with functional novelty.

Modular biological parts

  • The concept of modular biological parts is significant because it proposes the creation of a database of standard biological parts that exhibit predictable functions.
  • A biological module is a discrete functional unit capable of retaining its intrinsic properties regardless of interactions (Andrianantoandro et al. 2006; Calvert 2010).
  • BioBricks is a group that aims to create an open database of interchangeable biological parts (Calvert 2010). Researchers will create and define various biological parts including enzymes, genetic circuits and, metabolic pathways with specific functions (Keasling 2008).
  • These parts would then be able to be integrated into cells designed to perform specific tasks. However, the creation of standard biological parts requires further research, as many biological functions are context dependent, and thus will exhibit different properties in different environments (Andrianantoandro et al. 2006).
  • The inevitable factor of cellular interference can be reconciled with an increased understanding of the interaction of intracellular components (Wang 2010).
  • With an increased understanding scientists may be able to either minimize or predict interference among biological parts, and thus create stable novel organisms to perform a specified task (Wang 2010; Benner et al. 2010).

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