Saturday, December 08, 2007

Synthetic Biology

One of the hottest areas of biology today is synthetic biology. Synthetic biologists are not content to take a gene from one species and insert it into the genetic material of another species.

Instead, synthetic biologists are attempting to build a set of standard building blocks often by synthesizing DNA from scratch. The idea is to have a set of modules that can be plugged together to make the biological equivalent of electrical devices.

So just as an electrical engineer designs new circuits by plugging together standard parts on a breadboard, the synthetic biologist attempts to create custom organisms by inserting these biological circuits into cells.

The field has progressed to the point where there is an annual student competition at MIT dedicated to designing custom devices called iGEM which stands for International
Genetically Engineered Machine Competition. The winners of the 2007 competition have just been announced and they include teams that developed applications of synthetic biology to medicine, environmental sensing, energy and information processing.

For example a team from Alberta Canada developed a synthetic set of genes involved in the production of butanol, an organic compound that could serve as a fuel alternative to ethanol.A team from University of Missouri at Rolla, the Missouri Miners developed a biological breathalyser and a biological timer.

Synthetic biology is in its infancy and the power of this technology is rapidly increasing, much like the power of computers, so that soon synthetic biologists may be able to construct synthetic organisms entirely from scratch!

Links

Syntheticbiology.org

Synthetic Life, Scientific American 2004

iGem2007

Missouri Miners

Cross posted to Dangerous Ideas

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