Synthetic biology: what is it and why is it all over the news?

Synthetic biology: what is it and why is it all over the news?

Several of our recent blogs have focused on topics in synthetic biology, such as cultured meat, algae photobioreactors, and bioplastic – and now synthetic biology is showing up all over the news. In case you haven’t yet seen the headlines, this is due to the US Senate passing a bipartisan bill on June 8, 2021 which included a provision to invest billions of dollars into synthetic biology R&D.

Here, we’ll explain what synthetic biology actually is, and answer other key questions that you may have concerning the topic.

How did synthetic biology get in the news?

Congress passed a bill to fund critical areas of research and development, focusing on semiconductor production, supercomputing, cybersecurity, and synthetic biology. The goal of the bill is to ensure that the US can remain a world leader in these key areas.

Historically, government spending has led directly to the development of key technologies such as airplanes and satellites, medical devices and drugs, and the internet. While US spending on basic research peaked in the 1960s, it has been falling ever since. This bill is designed to increase government spending in focused research areas where market-driven paybacks are expected to be large, but are still many years away.

While the bulk of the funding will go toward semiconductors, synthetic biology research is estimated to receive a total of $26.2 billion over four years.

What is synthetic biology?

Synthetic biology is the practice of engineering cells and their mechanisms to benefit from their products and functionalities. People have been growing cells in labs ranging from high school biology classrooms to pharmaceutical research settings for decades. When grown at scale, these cells can then be used to produce valuable proteins. In pharmaceutical settings, this is most often done to create the class of drugs known as biologics which are are often used in vaccines (such as the various Covid-19 vaccines) and in research focused on targeted genetic therapies. Methods of scaling cell growth from lab to commercial scales are becoming increasingly efficient.

In addition to pharmaceuticals, synthetic biology is utilized in fields as diverse as biofuels, cosmetics, and carbon capture. In each of these areas, cells are grown in engineered environments, at conditions experimentally designed to produce specific proteins, antibodies, or enzymes. Cells can even be made to proliferate with a set ratio of fat to muscle cells, such as when making lab-grown meat.

Once the cells are grown to an optimal density, they’re moved further downstream for processing. At this point, various cellular components are filtered out, leaving only the desired product, which can then be further engineered based on the specific application goals.

In short: we know that cells innately have an incredibly diverse array of functions. Plant cells have carbon capture mechanisms, pulling carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and turning it into oxygen and sugar; mammalian cells produce antibodies against viruses and enzymes with the ability to alter pieces of DNA; and microbial cells can turn methane into plastic. Synthetic biology simply builds on these innate functions to more effectively solve biologic, environmental, and other problems.

Is synthetic biology the same as genetic engineering?

Synthetic biology is a broader category which encompasses genetic engineering. Genetic engineering generally refers to editing, altering, and/or transferring snippets of DNA or RNA in or between organisms. Synthetic biology may include genetic engineering, but looks at use cases for the cell and all cellular products, rather than focusing in on genetic code.

An example to illustrate the relationship between the concepts: genetic engineering can be used to alter a cell’s DNA, so that it produces a certain protein in much higher abundance than it would naturally. This process is optimized at a small scale in a research lab, and can then be scaled up to produce cells and proteins in much larger quantities. To obtain the desired protein, the cells are ruptured and the protein purified out and concentrated. The protein can then be further processed based on the application at hand. These various downstream steps represent synthetic biology processes that are not considered genetic engineering.

How is synthetic biology used and why is it growing so fast?

Startups working on both specific applications and means of culturing and processing cells have proliferated in recent years (much like the cells they’re working with!), and the synthetic biology market is estimated to grow at a rate of over 20%.

Human cells, other mammalian cells, and the cells of yeast and various microbes, algae, and fungi, are very powerful in applications ranging from lab-grown meat and petroleum substitutes, to carbon capture technology and compostable plastics, to personalized medicine and environmentally-friendly cosmetics. Cutting-edge engineering solutions for culturing cells have been rapidly simplifying and accelerating the scale-up process for cell cultures over the past ten years, and it is no surprise that synthetic biology applications are following close behind, with engineered cells offering unprecedented solutions to global problems.