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What is synthetic biology

Here is what it is, how it works, and what perspectives open synthetic biology, the new frontier of molecular biology. The news of the bacterium with an extended genetic alphabet has prompted curiosities about the profound changes that scientists can make to living species, through a new discipline called synthetic biology. But what is this new and revolutionary approach to the study of life? What do you promise, and what are the dangers and precautions to be taken in these studies?

What is synthetic biology?

It is a discipline halfway between engineering and molecular biology. Invented by the Americans in the early 2000s in biological engineering faculties, it aims to redesign the metabolic and genetic circuits of living organisms, to create a synthetic organism of practical importance.

But then does synthetic biology build GMOs?

No, they are two very different approaches. In genetically modified organisms (GMOs), there are only one or two genes introduced into the whole genome. The rest of the cell works as before and synthesizes only a few different molecules to defend against parasites or herbicides. In synthetic organisms, on the other hand, the entire genome is almost totally revolutionized, so much so that some researchers speak of "synthetic life."

Should we fear for human health and the environment?

Many studies on applications are still pioneering, and some claim that the products could have effects contrary to those desired, both in a patient and in the environment. Risks feared, for example, in the application of modified organisms to clean-up techniques, spreading synthetic bacteria on contaminated soils could obtain the desired result. But it also generates undesirable and difficult to predict effects. Some projects indeed create organisms that self-destruct, but there is always the risk that these cells can mutate.

Some say that this engineering is an illusion because we do not know the cells well enough to induce them to do what we want. Within the community of synthetic biologists, however, there is a lot of attention to the consequences of the studies. And a lot of research is monitored by sociologists, ecologists, and ethics committees, who try to understand what could happen if we left free modified organisms in nature. Certain cautions when a very advanced technology such as synthetic biology opens the doors to a real revolution in knowledge.

What are living organisms used?

Laboratories usually use relatively simple organisms, such as bacteria (such as E. coli); since the genome of these organisms is very well known, it is also possible to modify it and verify the consequences of the modifications. Other bacteria used are even simpler and have a genetic makeup made up of very few genes, such as mycoplasmas. In this way, other DNA fragments can be removed or added to radically change their behavior and metabolism.

What procedures are used in laboratories?

The researchers use two approaches. In the first case, the individual molecules are put together, such as proteins, lipids, DNA, and a synthetic cell is built to see what happens. In other words, an attempt is made to build a replica of the very first living cells, which obviously cannot be studied because they no longer exist. It usually starts from lipid "bags," "similar to cell membranes, which can incorporate proteins and genetic material. The reactions that take place in these cells are studied, and according to the researchers, they are very similar to what happened in the very first cells. The second, top-down approach, instead, try to get to the "minimal genome," which is the indispensable way to keep a cell alive. It is as if the roof, the trunk, the seats, and the bodywork were removed from a car, leaving the engine, the wheels, and the basic transmission and driving mechanisms. The result should be an improved and optimized cell, which does it all with more efficiency and speed.

What are the purposes of the two approaches?

The former serves to study the origin of life; the latter has industrial applications such as the synthesis of new molecules. What are the DNA fragments that add to the "minimal genome"? They are standard DNA sequences that any researcher can find in the so-called "Registry of Standard Biological Parts" at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and freely use for his research.

What are the application fields?

Those most at hand in the medium term are in the field of the bio-economy, such as the production of molecules or processes in the field of the green economy. For example, a sector of great impact could be the production of bioethanol. Algae and cyanobacteria can also be modified to produce other fuels for cars, such as methanol or butanol. There is a lot of belief in the opportunities of synthetic biology also in the sector of pharmacological molecules. It is due to modified yeast that we get to the precursor of an antimalarial drug, artemisinin. Traditional production is done by extracting the molecules from a plant, Artemisia annua, especially in factories in China and Vietnam. Since April 2013, however, innovative production also started at the Sanofi-aventis factory in Garessio (Cn); here, the molecules obtained from the modified yeast are transformed due to synthetic biology. With the raw material leaving the factory, the drug is expected to be sufficient for 120-130 million treatments for malaria patients. Here the molecules obtained from modified yeast are transformed due to synthetic biology. With the raw material leaving the factory, the drug is expected to be sufficient for 120-130 million treatments for malaria patients. Here the molecules obtained from modified yeast are transformed due to synthetic biology. With the raw material leaving the factory, the drug is expected to be sufficient for 120-130 million treatments for malaria patients.

Other much more advanced projects concern the method to make synthetic bacteria synthesize the so-called smart proteins, "intelligent" molecules that self-assemble where the disease is present - for example, a tumor - to combat it.

Are they just theoretical studies, or is there also the interest of the industry?

That the prospects for this field are interesting is demonstrated by the fact that Exxon, the US oil giant, financed with $ 600 million the research of Craig Venter, one of the pioneers of industrial applications in synthetic biology (and in the sequencing of the human genome), to create biofuel from modified bacteria. In addition, BBC Research estimated that in 2011 the turnover of synthetic biology was 1.6 billion dollarssynthetic biology, with a projection of 10.8 billion for 2016.


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