Synthetic biology is an emerging interdisciplinary branch of biology and engineering. It involves designing and constructing new biological parts, devices and systems as well as re-designing existing natural biological systems. Over the past decade, significant advances have been made in synthetic biology primarily due to rapid progress in DNA sequencing and synthesis technologies, standardization of parts and protocols, and development of computer-aided design (CAD) tools. Let’s take a deeper look into this exciting new field and its wide range of applications and Synthetic Biology Market Outlook.
History and Development
The term “synthetic biology” was first coined in 1974 by geneticist Herbert Boyer. However, active research and development in this field started only in the early 2000s led by scientists at MIT and UC Berkeley. One of the early milestones was the creation of the standard Biological Parts Assembly Standard (BioBricks) by Tom Knight and colleagues in 2003. This set of standardized DNA parts allowed biological systems to be assembled in a plug-and-play manner much like electronic circuits.
In subsequent years, various genetic parts registries were established including Registry of Standard Biological Parts (parts.igem.org) and International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition which accelerated parts development and system design. CAD software such as Eugene and Cello were also developed to assist in digital design of biological circuits and pathways. All these advancements laid the foundation for engineering biology as a quantitative and predictive science.
Applications across Industries
Synthetic biology now has wide ranging applications across healthcare, agriculture, materials and energy industries. Some notable examples are discussed below:
Healthcare: This includes production of drugs, vaccines, diagnostic tools and gene therapies. For instance, yeast is engineered to produce artemisinin – a key antimalarial drug synthesised from plants. SynBio companies also produce insulin and other biologics more sustainably than traditional methods.
Agriculture: Genetically engineered crops with enhanced drought/pest resistance, higher yield and nutritional value are being developed. One successful example is papaya engineered to resist the papaya ringspot virus which was devastating papaya farms in Hawaii in the late 1990s.
Materials: Biology can be programmed to produce novel sustainable materials such as fragrances, flavors, buttons, fabrics, plastics from renewable sources instead of petroleum. Genetically modified microbes churn out spider silk and other strong biopolymers.
Energy: Through synthetic metabolic engineering, microbes such as E. coli and yeast can convert lignocellulosic biomass into biofuels like ethanol, butanol and terpenes. Some even produce hydrogen directly from sunlight without using precious metals. Microalgae have shown promise for next-generation biodiesel.
Genome Editing in Synthetic Biology
The discovery and refinement of new genome editing tools like CRISPR-Cas9 has given a big boost to synthetic biology applications. These precision DNA scissors allow accurate and facile alterations to genomes of various organisms. Scientists can now quickly and inexpensively insert, delete, modify or regulate genes. Here are some ways genome editing is being leveraged:
– Engineering microbes for production of novel chemicals and materials by tuning metabolic pathways.
– Generating designer crops with improved phenotypes – drought tolerance, high yield, virus resistance etc.
– Generating gene therapies by correcting mutations that cause genetic diseases like sickle cell, cystic fibrosis etc.
– Developing gene drives for eradicating invasive species and controlling mosquito-borne diseases.
– Generating transgenic animals – pig and cow organs for xenotransplantation, enhancer mice for biomedical research.
– Synthesizing minimal bacterial and yeast genomes to understand minimal gene requirements for life.
The global synthetic biology market is growing rapidly driven by technological advancements, extensive R&D investments from governments and companies, and demand across multiple sectors. However, China, U.S. and some European nations currently dominate the market. For more detailed analysis on key players, regional market trends and factors influencing growth, please refer to the synthetic biology market research report published on Coherent Market Insights. With the continuous evolution of tools and technologies, this interdisciplinary field is certain to make a big impact in the coming decades through its numerous applications.