Synthetic biology is a relatively new interdisciplinary field of science that combines engineering, design, and computer science with biology. Researchers design or redesign organisms on a molecular level for new purposes, to make them adaptable to different environments, or to give them different abilities.
Synthetic biologists are working to develop new kinds of proteins that might someday replace the animal meats we consume. Industrial biologists are investigating how to build new enzymes that could help break down plastics.
Synthetic biology will someday help repair defective genes, rid the planet of toxins, destroy cancer cells, and help mass-produce proteins for our consumption. It could be a key to a healthier planet. Since 2018, more than 100 synthetic biology startups have collectively raised $3.8 billion.
While synthetic biology might sound similar to genetic engineering, they are different fields. In general, modifying an organism by editing a single gene doesn’t count as synthetic biology. Engineering rice so that it can withstand extreme heat results in an improved strain of rice, which could also be accomplished through breeding over a long period of time. But if you wanted rice that could not only stand up to extreme heat but could also serve as a convincing substitute for beef, you’d need to engineer that rice with a suite of new genes that would result in an entirely new genetic code. Synthetic biology involves creating an organism that doesn’t already exist in nature.
There have been some exciting developments in this field in the past decade. Swiss researchers figured out in 2012 that it’s possible to program mammalian cells to do basic math. Researchers at the University of California at San Francisco engineered E. coli that can be programmed to find and move along designated paths.
Imagine a future in which you no longer take medication—instead, your cells are simply reprogrammed to fight off whatever ails you. Or biting into a thick, juicy Tomahawk steak, grilled to perfection—and vegan-friendly, because it is made from plant-based proteins. Exxonmobil has even partnered with Synthetic Genomics to research how to make fuel from algae.
Our DNA is made up of base pairs, which you’ve no doubt seen in a double-helix illustration. Each base includes an A-T or C-G, and the combination of pairs is what makes up our phenotype—our visible, personal traits and characteristics. But what if it was possible to include new bases? In 2014, scientists successfully added new bases and discovered additional possibilities that worked, at least in E. coli.
Synthetic biology could be a far more realistic way to mitigate the problems of climate change than seeking off-planet solutions (like colonizing Mars).
Aleph Farms, Arcadia Biosciences, Arzeda, Atomwise, Autolus, Azitra, Baker Lab at the University of Washington, Beam Therapeutics, Bolt Threads, Calysta, Cargill, CB Therapeutics, Checkerspot, Codagenix, Codexis, Delft Advanced Biorenewables, Distributed Bio, DNS Script, EdiGENE, Fauna Bio, Gilead Sciences, Ginkgo Bioworks, Global Bioenergies, Google Calico, Google Deep Mind, Impossible Foods, Inscripa, Lygos, Memphis Meats, Microsoft Research, Moderna, Motif, Oxford Biomedica, Poseida Therapeutics, Precision BioSciences, Princeton University, Riffyn, Scout Bio, Sherlock Biosciences, Shire Pharmaceuticals, SNIPR BIOME, Sphere Fluidics, Stanford University, Strand Therapeutics, Strateos, Symlogic, Synthace, Twist Bioscience, Vedanta Biosciences, Verve Therapeutics, Vestaron, Wild Earth, Zymergen.
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