Synthetic biology is a new area of biological research that combines science and engineering in order to design and build ("synthesize") novel biological functions and systems.
Over the past 50 years, several pivotal advances have transformed the life sciences, including the discovery of the structure of DNA, the deciphering of the genetic code, the development of recombinant DNA technology, and the mapping of the human genome. Synthetic biology is another transformative innovation that will make it possible to build living machines from off-the-shelf chemical ingredients, employing many of the same strategies that electrical engineers use to make computer chips. Drawing upon a set of powerful techniques for the automated synthesis of DNA molecules and their assembly into genes and microbial genomes, synthetic biology envisions the redesign of natural biological systems for greater efficiency, as well as the construction of functional “genetic circuits” and metabolic pathways for practical purposes.
Among the potential applications of this new field is the creation of bioengineered microorganisms (and possibly other life forms) that can produce pharmaceuticals, detect toxic chemicals, break down pollutants, repair defective genes, destroy cancer cells, and generate hydrogen for the post-petroleum economy. Although synthetic biology is chiefly an engineering discipline, the ability to design and construct simplified biological systems offers life scientists a useful way to test their understanding of the complex functional networks of genes and biomolecules that mediate life processes.
Today, synthetic biology is at roughly the same level of development as molecular genetics was in the mid- to late 1970s, some five years after the invention of recombinant-DNA technology.
Many of the enabling technologies for synthetic biology have existed for several years. The metabolic engineering of bacteria for natural product synthesis was first achieved in the early 1970s, and engineered bacterial plasmids for biotechnology were developed during the 1980s. Genetically modified organisms with relatively sophisticated systems for gene expression and containment have been around for nearly as long. The main difference between genetic engineering and synthetic biology is that whereas the former involves the transfer of individual genes from one species to another, the latter envisions the assembly of novel microbial genomes from a set of standardized genetic parts. These components may be natural genes that are being applied for a new purpose, natural genes that have been redesigned to function more efficiently, or artificial genes that have been designed and synthesized from scratch.
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