"Synthetic biology borrows from engineering and biology disciplines making it possible to execute better design, build, and testing of DNA sequencing" explains Dr Stefanie Frank, lecturer in Synthetic Biology, Department of Biochemical Engineering at University College London (UCL), at the IET Central London Network event held at IET Savoy Place.

She explained in very simple, coherent terms how 'Cutting and pasting' techniques are allowing sections of DNA, that provide the code for proteins such as enzymes (biocatalysts), nanoparticles, or even spider silk, to be cloned.  However this, is just the start. The synthetic biology industry is going through a revolution, where advances in micro-technologies are enabling the central dogma of biology – DNA -> mRNA -> Proteins – to be utilised by the industry to implement more and more complex tasks. 

When it comes to making synthetic genes, she explained that most labs order DNA for their experiments from external companies - costing as little as 40 cent per DNA base (the 4 ‘letters’ of DNA are the bases A, G, T, & C). The productionisation of DNA sequencing is progressing so swiftly that other uses of DNA are now being thought of, such as using DNA for long term data storage – plans for making a machine, that can automatically produce DNA to store over 1 terabyte of data, have been proposed. In fact, just like a workflow in a project, genetic designs (known as circuits) are using DNA-switches so that when a certain condition is met, a new state is created causing the DNA to be transcribed into a protein (the techniques even uses the concepts of Boolean Logic, such as NAND, AND, XOR, etc).

As expected, with this logical organisation, DNA sequencing has itself developed its own standardised genetic design language called the Synthetic Biology Open Language (SBOL). This allows a repository of catalogs to exist which in turn allows you to program how the DNA sequence should be created and behave. For example, engineering bacteria to not only produce compartments that bind with cancerous cells, but that also deliver a toxic payload. This was followed by introducing the iGEM (International Genetically Engineered Machines) competition. Primarily undergraduate student teams from around the world compete to design genetic circuits that modify cells to produce interesting properties using standardised parts called ‘biobricks’ (from the idea of Lego bricks).

In terms of advancements in this field, Dr Franck talked about how some companies are engaging the ‘carbon circular economy’. Using solar energy and reactions involving atmospheric carbon dioxide to create proteins, thus reducing the need for reagents to culture the bacteria.

Ethics were also heavily discussed, particularly where synthetic biology was used in medicine or where organisms could be accidentally released into the ecosystem. With the latter, the aim being not to avoid risk, but to manage it, for example by, engineering a virus that by design must have control measures in place.

A fascinating talk that walked you through the history of synthetic biology with a pragmatic glimpse of what the future holds.

Blog co-written with Matthew Davies, IET Central London volunteer.